The Skeptics

The U.S. NATO Alliance Has Been a One-Way Street for Too Long

Nevertheless, some Europeans defend their minimal commitment to their own defense. One, obviously reflecting public attitudes, is that the continent faces few, if any, serious security threats. “Old Europe,” at least, is unlikely to find Russian tanks traversing local roads under any circumstances, and no other similarly dangerous scenarios are evident. So why spend more? That’s a perfectly reasonable argument, but it leaves no reason for American military forces to stick around.

Some European defense officials contend that while they are poor on inputs, they do better on outputs: as a share of forces, the United States provides less than its 46 percent of total NATO GDP. That ignores relative capabilities of the militaries: American units are more able and deployable.

Moreover, Europe provides none of the funding for the defense of anything else, including America and Asia. Of course, Europeans may bridle at what they see as Washington’s demand to back U.S. primacy and its uniquely global ambitions, but why should America do what the Europeans could do for themselves? No one else will protect the United States and Asia continues to grow in economic and strategic importance. If there is a case for an added American effort, it is to do what no one else will do, not to substitute for European capabilities.

However, most forthright was the European Commission’s Juncker, who acknowledged to the Munich Security Conference that increased allied spending “has been the American message for many many years.” However, he added: “I am very much against letting ourselves be pushed into this.” After all, the Europeans do so much more elsewhere: “If you look at what Europe is doing in defense, plus development aid, plus humanitarian aid, the comparison with the United States looks rather different.” Security involves more than just “raising defense spending.”

Yes, and the Europeans spend more on their own social welfare and many other domestic purposes as well. None of this supplants the continent’s responsibility for its own defense. The record of development aid is dubious, and often is used as an indirect subsidy for local exporters. It has very little to do with protecting the continent. Humanitarian assistance is a generous response to tragedy, but is no substitute to fielding capable armed forces. Providing international “aid” does not warrant Europe expecting America to sacrifice its own people and wealth, and risk war with a nuclear power, over continental rather than U.S. interests.

Still, there is no reason for the Europeans to spend more than they wish on the military, so long as they bear the consequences of doing so without complaint. If they don’t believe they need to respond—and few Europeans really appear to believe that the revived Red Army is about to make a dash across Europe to the Atlantic—then Washington shouldn’t complain. But they shouldn’t expect America to provide added military insurance.

Which is where President Trump has gone wrong. The problem is not that the Europeans spend too little. The problem is that the United States shouldn’t be defending the continent irrespective of how much they spend. Thus, Washington’s objective should be to be to return to Europe responsibility for its own defense, irrespective of how much European countries devote to armed forces. The fact that European military outlays are increasing merely makes the case that they are capable of safeguarding their own security.

Secretary Mattis got Europe’s attention. Now President Trump should take the next step and begin discussions on turning NATO into a European-led and -funded defense organization. It is time to relieve Americans of their seemingly endless obligation to subsidize their prosperous and populous cousins across the Atlantic.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Image: A Latvian soldier during a situational training exercise as part of Saber Strike 2013. Flickr/U.S. Army Europe