It’s Time for Europe’s Militaries to Grow Up
The continent can't blame Trump for its long-running inability to take care of its own security.
The transatlantic partnership between the United States and Europe has been the linchpin of U.S. grand strategy for more than half a century. It is also in deep trouble. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly suggested that NATO was obsolete, accused U.S. allies in Europe of “not paying their fair share,” and said “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
Not surprisingly, his election rang alarm bells in Europe, and his erratic behavior since taking office has only intensified European concerns. How can America’s European partners be confident in their most important ally when the U.S. president lives in an alternative reality derived from Breitbart, Fox News, and whatever dark conspiracies he’s being fed by Steve Bannon? Would you trust a president who prefers to rely on shady Ukrainian politicians, convicted fraudsters, and his own personal lawyer to deal with sensitive diplomatic matters, instead of the normal channels of statecraft?
Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence spent last week trying to reassure U.S. allies at the Munich Security Conference, but their efforts were only partly successful. Each made strong pro-NATO statements — and Pence even said the U.S. commitment was “unwavering” — but their message wasn’t unambiguous. In particular, Mattis warned his NATO counterparts that the United States might moderate its commitment to Europe if they didn’t ramp up their defense spending to roughly 2 percent of GDP.
This recurring concern with European defense spending is understandable, but it mostly misses the point. Why? Because the fundamental problem isn’t inadequate latent capacity or even a lack of mobilized resources. The only “clear and present” military threat Europe faces today is a resurgent Russia (though this threat may not be nearly as great as alarmists maintain), and NATO’s European members possess the wherewithal to deal with the challenge on their own. Leaving the United States and Canada out of the equation, NATO’s European members have nearly four times Russia’s population, and their combined GDP is more than 12 times greater. More importantly, even at today’s supposedly “inadequate” spending levels, every year NATO’s European members (again: not counting the United States and Canada) spend at least five times more on defense than Russia does.
The problem, in other words, is not the amount of money that European countries devote to national security. The problem rather is that they don’t spend these funds very effectively and don’t coordinate their defense activities as well as they could. Despite numerous attempts, Europe’s long-promised “Common Foreign and Security Policy” remains an aspiration, not a reality. This failure isn’t at all surprising, because CFSP is an EU initiative and the EU is still more of a collection of nation-states rather than a fully integrated community. The key point, however, is that throwing more euros (or kroner or zlotys) at the problem won’t fix it.
Among other things, this situation tells you that if NATO were to meet U.S. demands and get all of its members up to the canonical target of 2 percent of GDP, it wouldn’t do all that much to improve the overall balance of power unless they started spending the money more effectively. In short, the narrow focus on “defense spending as a percentage of GDP” is a red herring.
U.S. efforts to pressure Europe into spending more by threatening to reduce its own commitment to Europe are also inherently contradictory. When he warned that the United States might “moderate” its support, Secretary of Defense Mattis was telling his European counterparts that they might not be able to count on the United States if they didn’t start spending more. The flip side of the coin, however, is an implicit pledge that if they do start hitting that 2 percent target, then Washington will stay “all in,” too. But that’s a recipe for Europe doing just enough to keep Uncle Sam happy while Washington remains its protector of first and last resort.
From a broader strategic perspective, getting Europe to bear more of the burden of its own defense is meaningful only if it allows the United States to reduce the resources it devotes to European security so that it can focus more attention on other theaters, such as Asia. And given the enormous imbalance between Europe’s military potential and those of its potential foes, that formula should be relatively easy to negotiate. Instead of the familiar kabuki dance where Americans threaten to do less but don’t really intend to, the United States and its European partners ought to be developing a long-term plan to reduce the U.S. commitment more or less permanently (or until such time as there is a serious threat to the European balance of power). As John Mearsheimer and I explained last summer, as long as there is no potential hegemon in Europe — and Russia doesn’t qualify — it is not necessary for the United States to take the lead in defending it.
In short, the hype devoted to relative defense spending levels is mostly just symbolic politics. What American politicians are really saying is that it looks bad when Americans spend 3.5 percent of GDP on defense and our relatively wealthy allies in Europe (or Asia, for that matter) spend less than 2 percent. And they’re right: It does look bad. But if U.S. officials can somehow convince those same allies to boost their spending a bit, they can go back to American voters and claim success, even if it doesn’t reduce U.S. defense burdens or make Europe any safer.
Finally, constantly harping about burden sharing distracts attention from the more serious challenges that threaten the transatlantic partnership. The first challenge is the lack of a compelling strategic rationale for it. Much as I hate to admit it, Trump was not entirely wrong to suggest NATO was obsolete — at least in its current form — because it was created to deal with a problem (the Soviet Union) that no longer exists. It is harder to justify an expensive U.S. commitment to defend Europe when there is no potential hegemon there and the new missions that NATO has taken on after the Cold War ended (Afghanistan, Libya, etc.) have fared rather poorly. (NATO’s other implicit purpose — “to keep the Germans down” — isn’t relevant either, despite Germany’s central role in the EU. With a declining and rapidly aging population, Germany today could never aspire to European hegemony.)
The second challenge is European disunity itself, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, eurozone crisis, and Brexit decision. Centrifugal forces in Europe make it even less likely that its member states will create effective all-European defense forces, even if individual countries do manage to boost their own spending levels a bit. And they certainly won’t do the hard work to create a genuine pan-European defense capability if they remain convinced Uncle Sam will always be there to bail them out.
Then throw in various right-wing populist politicians who are either ruling or contending for power in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. Many of these would-be leaders are openly hostile to the idea of European unity, and Trump has made this problem worse by embracing Brexit and giving rhetorical support to right-wing xenophobes like Marine Le Pen.
This approach is exactly what Washington should not be doing today. If you want Europe to take on more responsibility for its own security, the last thing you’d want to do is undermine Europe’s increasingly delicate political order. A Europe led by politicians like Le Pen or Geert Wilders is not a Europe that will stable and secure enough to take care of itself so that the United States could focus its energies and resources elsewhere. If Trump really wanted to get the United States out of the business of protecting Europe, backing European xenophobes and coddling Vladimir Putin is not the way to go. But you weren’t expecting clear, coherent, or consistent strategic thinking from this president, were you?
Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.