The U.S. NATO Alliance Has Been a One-Way Street for Too Long
Moreover, if Russia really poses an existential threat to the continent, a 3.8 percent hike is ludicrously inadequate. Yet no one believes that European governments will engage in a sustained military buildup. Britain is embroiled in the potentially expensive process of leaving the European Union. Economic crisis is again building in Greece, threatening another continental convulsion. Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post noted that elections in “France and Germany feature insurgent anti-establishment nationalists who, like Trump, question the need for international alliances.” Even more mainstream Europeans worry more about sustaining their welfare states and managing excessive debts than about Moscow.
Moreover, no European country bears an economic burden of the military similar to that of the United States. Last year only four European nations even hit 2 percent of GDP: Greece (primarily to confront historic enemy Turkey), the United Kingdom (by fudging the statistics), Estonia (a small nation on Russia’s border) and Poland (which only recently hit that level). While 2 percent is wholly arbitrary, it at least is a convenient benchmark. For a country facing serious, potentially dire security threats, 2 percent is a pretty cheap price to pay for defense.
Latvia and Lithuania, in a state of near hysteria over what they see as potential Russian aggression, hit only 1.45 percent and 1.49 percent, respectively. France, which along with the UK possesses Europe’s most capable armed forces, appropriated a disappointing 1.78 percent, and Germany, with the continent’s largest GDP, ran a pitiful 1.19 percent. Four European nations, along with Canada, didn’t even hit 1 percent. One of those was Spain, with the continent’s fifth-largest economy. Sir Adam Thomson warned that making 2 percent by 2024 would mean that “for the 13 Allies like Germany who spend 1.2% of GDP or less, defence budget increases every year from now to 2024 of more than 6% on top of GDP growth would be necessary.”
No wonder President Trump called NATO “obsolete” during the campaign. He talked about not acting on the Article 5 obligation to defend the Baltics unless they “have fulfilled their obligations to us.” That’s a bad way of doing things—treaty obligations should not be casually tossed aside—but his comment reflected well-founded frustration about the Europeans’ willingness to cheap ride on American taxpayers.
Since then, however, it appears that he has been kidnapped and replaced by a Europhile twin from an alternate universe. The president apparently has developed a strange new respect for the alliance. Said Trump, or his clone: “We strongly support NATO. We only ask that all of the NATO members make their full and proper financial contributions to the NATO alliance, which many of them have not been doing.”
Secretary Mattis actually was blunter, telling the Europeans, “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do.” He even added a threat: “America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense.”
Some European leaders were conciliatory. German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen said simply, “The U.S. is right.” She added, “We Germans want to accept his challenge, and we want to accept it as Europeans.” Dutch defense minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert also backed Mattis’ request for higher continental outlays.
Alliance secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg embraced Mattis’s message, if not his tone: “This is not the U.S. telling Europe to increase defense spending. This is 28 allies, heads of state and government, sitting around the same table in 2014 and looking into each other’s eyes and agreeing that we shall increase defense spending. So this is about implementing something, which 28 heads of state and government have agreed that we will do together.”
Of course, that commitment wouldn’t exist absent U.S. complaints. Moreover, some of last year’s increases were tiny, while other governments reduced real outlays: Belgium, Canada, Greece, Poland, Turkey and the United Kingdom. But at least most members started moving in the right direction.