Damned if You Do
Obama hasn't made a peep about cutting U.S. support to NATO -- though everyone agrees it's necessary to get Europeans to pay their fair share. And yet, Romney attacks him for it.
Ever wonder why it's difficult to cut the defense budget? This week's NATO summit -- which took place amid free-flying accusations by Mitt Romney that President Barack Obama has undercut the U.S. commitment to the military alliance -- provides us with yet another sterling though under-examined example.
Ever wonder why it’s difficult to cut the defense budget? This week’s NATO summit — which took place amid free-flying accusations by Mitt Romney that President Barack Obama has undercut the U.S. commitment to the military alliance — provides us with yet another sterling though under-examined example.
As NATO leaders were gathering in Chicago over the weekend, the Romney campaign offered a statement that pilloried Obama for a failure of stewardship as NATO’s biggest contributor. "NATO’s success requires strong American leadership," said Romney. "It also requires its member states to carry their own weight. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has taken actions that will only undermine the alliance. The U.S. military is facing nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten years. And President Obama has sent the message — intentionally or not — that the worth of NATO has diminished in America’s eyes. At this moment of both opportunities and perils, the NATO alliance must retain the capacity to act."
Now there’s a lot to unpack here. Thankfully, Romney was nice enough to extrapolate on his argument in an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, in which he complained that only three of the 28 NATO member nations are meeting their agreed-upon pledge to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense (the United States currently spends just under 5 percent of its GDP on defense). But apparently this isn’t what he was referring to when he bemoaned the failure of member states to "carry their own weight." Rather, he was pointing the finger at the United States and specifically Obama (but not the Republican-led Congress, of course, which held a proverbial gun to the president’s head during last year’s debt limit crisis and forced those trillion dollars in defense cuts on him and the nation). According to Romney, "While military underinvestment is an old problem for NATO, a lack of American leadership on the issue is an alarming new development."
And the solution to this problem, wait for it … is to spend more U.S. taxpayer dollars on defense.
This reflects an age-old prisoner dilemma in U.S.-NATO relations. America’s NATO allies — you know, the European countries nominally being "protected" against enemies unnamed — have long dragged their feet when it comes to devoting their full share to their own protection. Meanwhile, Washington complains bitterly about this situation and every few years someone in the U.S. government raises enough of a fuss to demand that the situation be rectified. The latest example was former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who went to Brussels on a farewell tour in June of last year and told Europe to pay its fair share (in the midst of the NATO Libya campaign, no less), warning darkly that "there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense."
According to Gates, "future U.S. political leaders — those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost."
Gates was certainly unrestrained in his language but his sentiments accurately reflected much of the frustration toward NATO that exists inside the Pentagon. And it surely got the Europeans’ attention, but guess what? Nothing changed. All the NATO allies went merrily on their way with the United States continuing to pay about 75 percent of NATO’s defense budget (including 85 percent of missile defense funds) and European nations continuing to refuse to chip in more. Part of the reason, obviously, is that the Europeans don’t exactly have a lot of money to spare right now, what with the eurozone potentially crashing down around them. But then neither does the United States.
And in the end why should they chip in more? They know that for all of Gates’s tough talk, in the end it’s just that; the United States has never shown any inclination to cut the cord for NATO and make a real effort to force the Europeans to contribute more to the alliance.
The sad reality is that while Gates was pointing toward a future in which the investment in NATO will not be seen as worth the cost, the United States has probably reached already reached that point. Unlike when it was founded — and for the first 40 or so years of its existence — Europe today faces no serious existential threat, or for matter, even a non-serious military threat. Every couple of months, the Russians make a few provocative statements (like the recent warning that it would take out missile defense sites in Eastern Europe), but is Moscow really about to follow-up its stirring 2008 military victory in Georgia by rolling across the steppes of Ukraine? Hardly. It’s a nation that is demographically, politically, and economically challenged, and to make matters worse, it isn’t exactly brimming with potential allies. Quite simply, Europe should be more than able to defend itself against Russia or any other foreign threat (particularly as long as the United States remains a member of NATO, and even if its responsibilities to the alliance diminish).
While the U.S. contribution to NATO is not stratospheric, the failure of European countries to develop their own capabilities directly harms U.S. interests. Consider, for example, last year’s Libya war, in which America was dragged by France and Britain into a conflict it initially didn’t want any part of — and was then left holding the financial and military bag when it became obvious that NATO had little ability to fund even a limited war without the United States.
The irony of Romney’s comments — beyond the fact that during a primary campaign in which he regularly mocked America’s European allies as ossified, socialist, basket cases, he is now complaining that Obama has betrayed them — is that he shouldn’t be criticizing Obama for allegedly wanting to cut military spending to NATO. Romney should be criticizing him for wanting to spend more. In what other situation would it be considered politically appropriate to have countries free ride off U.S. generosity, and then turn around and demand that Washington provide even more lucre? But yet this is precisely Romney’s argument.
The only way to truly incentivize European defense spending for NATO is to say that the United States is going to reduce its commitment and then actually do it. Romney’s solution would instead actually reward European obstinacy. But in the end, that sort of logic is lost on Romney. Sadly, we’re back to the same old game — where no Republican can pass up the opportunity to attack a Democrat for cutting U.S. defense spending and allegedly making the United States less safe.
Indeed, what advantage would Obama or any other president have for calling for a reduced U.S. role in NATO? Even when they’re not pushing for such a policy outcome (as in right now) they’re going to get attacked for it. Obama has never spoken of lessening the U.S. commitment to NATO. In Chicago, he mouthed the same tired platitudes about NATO being "the bedrock of common security, freedom, and prosperity for nearly 65 years." Said Obama, "It hasn’t just endured. It has thrived, because our nations are stronger when we stand together." And still he’s accused of a lack of fealty to the organization?
From this perspective, the path of least political resistance is to maintain the status quo — and simply kick the can of America’s dysfunctional relationship with its NATO allies down the road. The same is true, of course, when it comes to the larger mountain of military spending: Even after both parties agreed to trim the Pentagon’s sails last summer, they’ve been spending much of the last year running away from that deal.
In the end, it’s politics, not security or logic, that makes it so hard to cut defense spending.
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