In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States has embarked upon an ambitious endeavor: containing its two most powerful rivals, China and Russia, at the same time. Central to this strategy is the imperative of garnering the support and cooperation of allies and partners in Eurasia, as the underlying calculus driving this framework is predicated on Washington’s growing perception of Europe and the Indo-Pacific as interconnected and interdependent geopolitical theaters, or in other words, one geopolitical theater. The objective is to bring together the political, military, economic, and technological capabilities of America’s European and Asian allies with the aim of deterring China and Russia from undermining the liberal international order and tilting the geopolitical balance of power against the collective West.
Viewing Europe and the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic theater presents potential risks to Washington’s global standing. Merging the European and Indo-Pacific theaters would be a strategic mistake, as it diverts resources from allies who could be better utilized in their respective regions. This approach reflects the policy, intellectual, and bureaucratic challenge of prioritizing between Asia and Europe, especially considering America’s finite resources and the ongoing shift of global power towards Asia. Pivotal states like India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia, and others oppose aligning fully with the United States under this approach, as it forces them to side with Washington when they would prefer to maintain their freedom of action. In due course, US strategy should shift toward prioritizing Asia by reinforcing Western Europe’s defense commitment for its Eastern flank. This step is vital to boost US global efforts, especially in the Indo-Pacific, given America’s resource limitations.
America’s Strategic Scarcity
In economic and budgetary terms, the United States cannot afford to treat Europe and the Indo-Pacific as a single geopolitical theater. America is no longer the world’s hegemon. During the height of the Cold War, the United States held a substantial economic advantage on the world stage by contributing 27 percent to the global gross domestic product (GDP), surpassing the combined share of the Soviet Union and China at 14 percent. Although GDP alone may not provide a comprehensive measure of economic strength, it remains a significant indicator nonetheless. However, the global landscape has since experienced a transformative hefty transformation. By 2020, the United States witnessed a relative decline, accounting for 16 percent of global GDP, while the combined economic clout of China and Russia surged to 22 percent.
America’s declining share of global GDP is paralleled by its waning strategic dominance. A recent RAND report titled, “Inflection Point: How to Reverse the Erosion of U.S. and Allied Military Power and Influence,” sheds light on a crucial aspect of this shift. It argues that the foundation of the US defense strategy in the post-Cold War period rested upon military forces that once held superiority across all domains compared to any potential adversary. However, this superiority has dissipated over time, as the United States and its allies no longer possess an exclusive hold on the technologies and capabilities that once granted them an overwhelming advantage against adversarial forces.
The Pentagon’s recent assurance that supporting Taiwan will not impinge on Ukraine’s supplies is hardly convincing, given the prevailing reality that both nations are deeply engaged in a fierce competition for American backing and resources. Taiwan and Ukraine are direct rivals competing for access to the very same types of Western armaments. To further exacerbate matters, Taiwan’s onerous backlog of orders, surpassing a colossal $14 billion, encompasses critical contracts for indispensable weaponry, notably the Javelin missiles and Stingers—weapons that have already been abundantly supplied to Ukraine.
The profound shift in economic and military dynamics calls for a prudent reassessment of America’s strategic priorities. It highlights the acute complexities of American military assistance to Taiwan and Ukraine, which in turn demands astute management to navigate this delicate and volatile geopolitical landscape. As nations vie for American support and compete for the same types of weapons, a careful approach is essential to avoid excessive commitments that might strain limited resources and jeopardize the nation’s standing on the global stage.
The Primacy Trap
The United States seeks to instill a shared sense of purpose among its allies and partners, urging them to adopt a unified stance in dealing with the challenges posed by China and Russia. President Joe Biden, during his recent diplomatic visits to Japan and Australia, engaged in high-level consultations with these key allies, focused not only on their ongoing response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but also on formulating comprehensive strategies to effectively counter China’s increasingly assertive economic and military maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific.
However, treating Europe and the Indo-Pacific as a singular, interconnected strategic theater poses a substantial threat to the global position of Washington in the emerging multipolar world order. This one interconnected theater strategy reflects America’s effort to evade an unavoidable choice: prioritizing one strategic theater over the other based on shifting priorities and resource constraints. During both the Trump and Biden administrations, the United States shifted its focus to a single major war concept as a response to resource limitations. However, the foreign policy community in Washington continued to advocate for a two-theater approach and dismissed any discussions about prioritizing strategic theaters as accusations of isolationism.
The True Nature of NATO’s Indo-Pacific Engagement
In June 2022, a notable event took place during the NATO summit in Madrid. The leaders of four Indo-Pacific partner nations—Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Korea—joined their NATO counterparts. This raises questions about the rationale behind connecting Europe to the Indo-Pacific. The NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July 2023 marked another meeting between these leaders.
What drives NATO’s interest in reaching out to countries situated so far from Europe? What are the underlying reasons for establishing strategic and military ties between these seemingly distant regions?
While acknowledging that the world faces complex security challenges that extend beyond regional boundaries, it remains essential to understand the motives behind forging such connections. Issues such as Russia’s actions in Ukraine and China’s growing assertiveness certainly contribute to the need for cooperation, but it is vital to assess whether this expansion truly serves the interests of all parties involved.
Moreover, it is worth considering the potential unintended consequences of linking NATO and the Indo-Pacific. Could this move create tensions in Asia or entangle European countries in conflicts outside their traditional sphere of influence? Considering the limitations of resources, it is reasonable to question whether NATO should prioritize closer-to-home issues over stretching its focus across continents. Emerging challenges in cyber, space, and disruptive technologies also demand attention, but the alliance must carefully weigh the implications of extending its cooperation beyond Europe.
The response to these pertinent questions emerged from Tokyo, where a senior Japanese official revealed that NATO’s engagement with Indo-Pacific partners, including Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan, serves a fundamental purpose: safeguarding an enduring and steadfast American commitment to Europe. The concerns of European NATO members regarding the potential shift of US focus to Asia are genuine, as they earnestly desire to avert such a scenario. In order to address this apprehension, bolstering partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region assumes critical significance. This approach allows the United States, from a European perspective, to deftly strike a balance between its attentiveness to Europe and Asia, thereby effectively protecting Europe’s vital interests.
The case for a tighter link between NATO and the Indo-Pacific is not very compelling. It seems that some Europeans may merely be paying lip service to the demands of Washington, given its support for Ukraine. The strategic intent of this concept in Europe may not be as clear-eyed as it appears. Perhaps, instead of binding itself to Europe, the United States should prioritize its much-needed pivot to Asia. This would necessitate a careful assessment of the implications and validity of forging such connections between these distant regions.
Pivotal States Reject the One Strategic Theater Approach
Currently, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and many European countries align themselves with the US-led alliance to dually contain the Russia-China axis. The strategic manifestation of this approach is the geopolitical merging of the Indo-Pacific and Europe. From the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to the G20, pivotal states, such as India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia, and others, actively reject considering Europe and the Indo-Pacific as a unified geopolitical stage. Swingstates play a major role at the emerging multipolar world order with their pivotal position in global supply chains, significant capital deployment, high-growth economies, robust military postures, and a commitment to preventing a resurgence of a bipolar structure that might jeopardize their economic and military objectives. Their viewpoint was exemplified by India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar during the 17th edition of the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum in Slovakia. In response to a question about India’s position in the current US-China rivalry, he said, “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.” He furthermore stated, “There is currently a connection being drawn between China, India, and the events unfolding in Ukraine. However, it is important to recognize that the circumstances involving China and India existed long before the situation in Ukraine arose.”
The evolving global landscape prompts a timely reevaluation of America’s role in Europe. Shifting priorities towards Asia raises questions about the extent of the US presence in Europe. Simultaneously addressing potential conflicts in both Asia and Europe necessitates astute resource management to avoid overextension of limited US resources. Enhancing European defense capabilities emerges as a cornerstone of US grand strategy, enabling Europe to contribute more effectively to its security while freeing vital resources for critical needs in Asia, and more importantly, it gives a firm a message to pivotal states that the United States doesn’t treat the Indo-Pacific and Europe as an interconnected theater.
Despite the ongoing Ukraine War, Western Europe still lacks adequate defense for its eastern NATO borders. European allies’ commitments to bolster eastern defenses have largely remained unfulfilled. With the addition of several hundred troops, the presence of Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands in NATO’s eastern region has been strengthened. However, Western European troop increases in the East pale next to the United States’ efforts. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States has added 20,000 troops to its presence in Europe and bolstered air, land, maritime, cyber, and space capabilities, with over 100,000 service members now stationed in Europe overall.
The Ukraine War has firmly reasserted the undeniable reality that the United States is the indispensable security guarantor of Europe. However, this position, born from the lack of stronger European resolve, affects the broader global standing of the United States in terms of resources and force posture. Therefore, obtaining more solid security commitments from Western European allies for Eastern Europe’s flank is crucial to rectifying this imbalance in America’s global stance. In simpler terms, fostering self-reliant European security ultimately bolsters US efforts in the Indo-Pacific.
In the face of resource constraints and a shifting global landscape, America’s strategy of merging the Indo-Pacific and Europe into one interconnected theater presents significant risks. While the aim is to consolidate capabilities among allies and partners to counter the Russia-China axis and preserve the liberal international order, this approach fails to prioritize effectively between two distinct strategic theaters. The decline of America’s relative economic dominance further necessitates a reassessment of strategic priorities and avoiding excessive commitments that strain limited resources. Moreover, pivotal states such as India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Indonesia reject the notion of treating Europe and the Indo-Pacific as a unified geopolitical stage, asserting the importance of prioritizing their own regional and economic interests. In Europe, the war in Ukraine reaffirmed the United States as Europe’s security guarantor, but obtaining firmer security commitments from Western European allies is vital to America’s global posture. Reinforcing European security amplifies US efforts in the Indo-Pacific. And this is the right approach for the United States to make strategic decisions that maintain its global standing in the emerging multipolar order.