Three weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack, and Italy and Germany then declared war on the United States, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall had to help President Franklin Delano Roosevelt make an important decision: should the United States focus on Europe or Asia first?
While Pearl was still smoldering, Roosevelt and his top commanders held a crisis summit with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Washington, to decide which enemy to focus on first: the Nazis or Japan. Marshall’s advice was clear: America, and her ally Britain, should focus on Europe first. The two leaders agreed, and the broad outlines of World War II were set. Germany was the Army’s first priority, and Japan would have to wait.
Today, the world’s only superpower similarly faces challenges in both Eurasia and in Asia. This time the Department of Defense has decided to prioritize the Asian theater, calling China its pacing threat. While DoD has made its choice, that does not mean that the Army must necessarily follow lockstep into an Asia first strategy; in fact, it shouldn’t. The Army’s priority should be Europe, looking East rather than West, even as the rest of DoD is locked on Asia. In fact, the Army’s priority should be Europe precisely because the rest of the department is focused on Asia.
The Marines, having divested of their tanks, are again focusing on littoral combat, and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 gave the Commandant of the Marine Corps specific responsibilities in defining requirements for types and numbers of amphibious ships. The Navy has long been Pacific first, and rightly so, given that the Indo-Pacific has far more water that requires coverage than Europe even with the thawing of Arctic waters. The Air Force is rightly proud of its global reach. But the Army should focus on Europe.
The U.S. Army does have a responsibility to set the theatre, i.e. bring in the equipment, troops and provide the logistical backbone for joint operations in case of all-out armed conflict in the area, say with China. But it lacks the persistent presence that the Marine Corps has in China’s first island chain, and forward stationed elsewhere in Asia. Instead, the Army’s forward presence and assigned land power force numbers are correctly weighted toward Europe. While the Marine Corps and the Army are needed in both theaters, the Army should not and for the sake of the security of the American people and the world must not go all in on Asia. Europe and the Russia threat remain too important.
In the same way that President Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to focus on the health and welfare reforms of the “Great Society” but saw the war in Vietnam consume his presidency, President Barack Obama wanted to “Pivot to Asia,” but events got in the way. Russia remained a malign power, even before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, using force for nefarious purposes across the European continent. Russia will continue to be a threat to world peace and stability at least until regime change there, and there is no guarantee that whoever replaces Putin leads Russia in a more pro-American direction. Russia is likely to be our proximate threat for decades to come.
Meanwhile, China is self-deterred from invading Taiwan as long as Taipei does not openly declare independence. China’s belligerent response to a visit to Taiwan by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., only accelerated moves by other regional countries like Australia and Japan to shore up their defenses against Beijing. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spurred a similar reflexive defensive reaction by Finland and Sweden, who both decided to join NATO. The democracies of the world are working to deter further adventurism from autocracies, but they need U.S. leadership — in Europe as well as in Asia. The Army is not wrong to commit three of its new Multi-Doman Task Forces to Asia, with just one dedicated to Europe and one based in the U.S. — but it cannot allow Europe to believe that the United States will not support and defend it against the urgent threat that Russia presents.
Sometime after Roosevelt and Churchill met, with London engaged in an existential fight under constant German attack, it became clear that the United States had to step up as a global power with global responsibilities. In that spirit, the U.S. Army remains the keeper of the security of Europe, while the Navy and Marines should focus on deterring and, if deterrence fails, defeating China.
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a clear argument that as the DoD made China its first priority, the nation should hedge with the Army against threats in Europe. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that argument became incontrovertible.
A new chief of staff of the Army will soon occupy George C. Marshall’s former chair. That chief should act boldly, with the wisdom of his predecessor, and focus the Army on Europe first. While DoD focuses on deterring China with Army support in Asia, the Army should center itself on deterring and defeating Russia in Europe. Like Gen. Marshall, the Army’s new Chief should proclaim “Europe first!”
Col. Keith Burkepile is the senior Marine representative at the Army War College. John Nagl, a retired Army officer, is associate professor of warfighting studies at the Army War College. They teach in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations.
This article does not express the opinions of the Army War College, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Department of Defense.
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