Joshua Treviño, Austin
When the Americans step out of the picture, the great engine of European history starts up again. Strategic imperative endures. Interest endures. The character of nations endures. Almost no one grasps the alternative.
Across the past four centuries of American settlement, European affairs have enmeshed America and Americans in armed conflict more than any other regional source excluding the territory of America itself. The list is extensive.
There were the prodigious number of pre-independence conflicts, ranging from small-scale Anglo-French and Anglo-Spanish skirmishes, to the array of major European wars with American adjunct theaters. The War of the League of Augsburg ravaged Europe from Ireland to the Rhineland throughout the 1690s, and also a far-flung series of American local theaters from Hudson Bay to the Hudson River. The War of the Spanish Succession dragged in the Americas through the early 1700s on battlefields from Florida to Newfoundland. Spain and England managed to fight an all-American war, including direct campaigning pitting Florida versus Georgia, beginning in the late 1730s. The War of the Austrian Succession through the 1740s visited destruction upon modern-day Nova Scotia and wiped out settlement north of Albany. The Seven Years War through the 1750s and early 1760s consumed the entirety of Canada, Quebec, and the British colonies north of Virginia.
Those are just the big ones. Then there was the American War of Independence, which concluded in 1783 and, the Founders hoped, would insulate the new American republic from the predations of the Old World.
America was back at war with European powers—or their proxies—within two years, as the British stoked and supplied the opposing tribes in the Northwest Indian War, which dragged on through 1795. Three years after that, America waged a two-year defensive naval war against revolutionary France. In the following decade, America was compelled into a second defensive naval war, this time against Britain. That slow burn of a conflict finally erupted into full warfare in 1812, concluding three years later in an uncertain fashion. The rest of that decade featured intermittent American raids into Spanish Florida, ending with Spain yielding the territory entirely.
Following this, most of the remainder of the century was remarkably free of European-related violence involving the United States—but not free of European violence involving the Americas, which continued apace in new episodes. Mexico and Haiti suffered tremendously at European hands throughout the nineteenth century, but not just them. The wider world in this period convulsed under modern colonialism: a mostly European project.
Most of the remainder of the century was free of European-related violence involving the United States, but not all of it. The specter of American conflict with European powers arose again in the American Civil War, first with the Trent affair that briefly threatened a third American war with Britain; and then with the French provision of fire support to Confederate units on the Rio Grande in 1865. The 1895 Venezuela crisis, mostly a consequence of British misunderstanding of American priorities, briefly raised the specter of conflict between the two powers again. The 1898 Spanish-American War brought the era of American peace with European powers to a decisive close. Two years later, Americans found themselves fighting in the Eight-Nation Alliance storming the Forbidden City: an action, along with multiple other China-related conflicts in the preceding century, arguably spurred on by American need to counter and keep pace with European powers’ penetration of that country.
Here we get to the World Wars, in which intra-European warfare eventually compelled America to conquer Europe, or meaningful parts of it in any case. These had multiple adjunct theaters of American action, including German involvement in Mexican attacks on the American border (the 1918 Battle of Ambos Nogales is arguably the only First World War land battle in the Western Hemisphere); American involvement in the Russian Civil War; and the desultory American engagements versus Yugoslav partisans contesting possession of Trieste. America narrowly avoided a third world war in the 1989-1991 period mostly through the savvy of its own strategic leadership in that period, but had it happened, it too would have been Europe-centric. The final—to date—American wars in Europe came in the Yugoslav wars of succession, as they unfolded from 1992 through 1999.
What is the purpose of recounting this extraordinary history? It is to remind us that Europe is the singular cauldron of violence that inflicted itself upon American lives and history across roughly four hundred years. The Founding generation understood it, and expected that independence would sever Americans from the great mechanism of European warfare. That expectation failed. Europe dragged America into its internecine affairs again and again, because definitionally there was no such thing as a purely European affair given the nature of European commitments and entanglements abroad. (If you think the record of European affairs drawing in America is extensive, check out the same engine at work in India, or China, or the Middle East, or Africa. The weaker your polity was, the worse you got it: especially if you were so weak, the Belgians got a cut.)
America was dragged in until the point that America decided to stay and run the place.
The 1st Baron Ismay once described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—which he helmed as its first Secretary-General—as an outfit designed to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. The quote is perhaps apocryphal, but if so it endured by virtue of its wit and accuracy. What was true in 1952 remains true in 2022. You see a lot of talk these days on just who is responsible for Europe. The cohort opposed to America having an active role there—especially in the Ukrainian crisis—will assert that the Europeans ought to do it. The Europeans should handle Europe, they say. The Europeans don’t even meet NATO spending targets, they say. The Europeans need to do for Europe.
It’s all very nice in theory, especially if you ignore—or more commonly, simply don’t know—any of the relevant history. The Europeans have, in fact, been trying to give that cohort of Americans exactly what they want for some time. There was the Western Union, then the Western European Union, then the European Union’s Eurocorps with its Franco-German Brigade. There were the European efforts to handle the Yugoslav wars outside of NATO, on a strictly European basis, which resulted in—among other things—the humiliation of European units at Serbian hands. In the context of the Ukraine crisis, there has for the past decade been an all-European effort, culminating in the two failed Minsk accords, to handle it independent of American involvement. Today, we see the announcement of a British-Polish-Ukrainian trilateral defense structure that will probably be as effective as the Franco-German Format Normandie structure—which is to say, not very.
The European approach mostly fails. What mostly works, in the European context, is American engagement, leadership, and direction.
This is by design, and we need to embrace it now, for the same reason we embraced it before. Europe for the past half-millennium has been a staggeringly effective exporter of violence and generator of war. The only mechanism to put a halt to that has been the intersection of European postwar exhaustion and the consequent hegemony of the United States of America. We think it’s simple to abandon because, lacking any context or memory, we deceive ourselves into the belief that the benign, security-freeloader Europe of today will be the Europe of tomorrow once the Americans step back.
That is delusion. The truth is that European postwar exhaustion was over long ago. When the Americans step out of the picture, the great engine of European history starts up again. Strategic imperative endures. Interest endures. The character of nations endures. Almost no one grasps the alternative. When NATO expansion into the former Warsaw Pact was contemplated in the mid-1990s, the Polish government was candid on its options. Poland can be in NATO, said the government in Warsaw, or it can field its own nuclear-weapons force. Everyone got the message. They got it because the Poles were right: that actually is the strategic alternative for a nation wedged between Germany and Russia.
Picture if you will a Europe of nations unbound to an external-power alliance, each believing it must field the same number of nukes as Poland, as Hungary, as France, as Sweden, as Germany.
Suddenly the relevance and necessity of America-in-Europe becomes clear. Suddenly the relevance of NATO becomes clear. We think there is an alternative to it because we have no experience of a world without it. Our grandfathers did. We have become complacent. But we don’t need to stay that way.
Joshua Treviño writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.
This is a well argued piece. I guess the disconnect is that someone who can recognize the need for a strong American led alliance to keep the Western powers from each other’s throats should also understand the need for a buffer between NATO and Russia.