The Heritage Foundation building in Washington, D.C. The conservative think tank hosted an event during the NATO summit on July 9, 2024, called “Not Your Grandfather’s NATO.”

The Heritage Foundation building in Washington, D.C. The conservative think tank hosted an event during the NATO summit on July 9, 2024, called “Not Your Grandfather’s NATO.” (Joe Gromelski/Special to Stars and Stripes)

Blocks away from NATO’s summit in downtown Washington, where heads of state are gathering this week to galvanize support for Ukraine and bolster defenses in Europe, alliance critics said Tuesday that allies are on a “sugar high.”

“Are we doing Europeans any favors by promising more than we can deliver?” asked Elbridge Colby, who served as a senior Defense Department official during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Colby and a panel of China hawks speaking at a Heritage Foundation event dubbed “Not Your Grandfather’s NATO” served up an alternative vision that clashes with the central role that the U.S. military has played in Europe since the aftermath of World War II.

Their outlook has been getting attention in conservative circles and among allies of Trump, such as Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, who has been mentioned as a possible Trump running mate.

“The first thing that we have to recognize here is that there are absolutely trade-offs. The United States is currently still pretending like we can do everything everywhere all at once, but we’re living in a world of hard choices,” said Wilson Beaver, a policy adviser for defense budgeting at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

For the Heritage Foundation, the vision for NATO is one where Europeans handle the bulk of the conventional security load. While the U.S. would still provide a nuclear deterrent, large numbers of U.S. forces would be moved to address the Pentagon’s top priority — deterring China.

The foundation contends the United States is exhausting itself in its support of Ukraine, which has depleted U.S. military munitions stockpiles and distracts from preparing for possible conflict with China.

Colby argued President Joe Biden or Trump will need to be ready in the next four years to deal with a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan and the first island chain, an expanse that also includes Okinawa and the Philippines and separates the East and South China Seas and the Pacific Ocean. He made his argument pointing to Beijing’s bellicose rhetoric and rapid military buildup.

“That means we don’t have the luxury of time. ... I think it’s indisputable that we’re deeper in the hole than we were before. So, I think unfortunately, we’re going to go through a period of vulnerability,” Colby said.

In Europe, allies have stepped up defense expenditures, especially since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which obliterated old security assumptions on the Continent. There also is growing awareness among allies that the U.S. could be pulled in other directions, namely the Indo-Pacific region.

It remains unclear how fast allies could fill in the defensive gaps left open should the U.S. military attempt a hard pivot away from Europe. The U.S. Army serves as the logistical backbone of alliance efforts across Europe and the main source of firepower on the ground. When Russian forces pushed into Ukraine in 2022, the Army was able to dispatch brigade combat teams quickly to NATO’s eastern flank. Meanwhile, Germany is struggling to field a single new brigade for a much-anticipated deployment to Lithuania not expected to be completed until 2027.

Colby said Europeans are going “through the stages of grief” as they grapple with the current security situation and build up their militaries.

But given Europe’s economic heft — the Continent’s collective GDP dwarfs Russia — it possesses the means to do more, the China hawks argue.

“The United States needs focus on the Indo-Pacific. And we need our European allies to step up. And they’re perfectly capable of it,” Beaver said.

author picture
John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now