Since the formation of NATO more than sixty years ago the Europeans have scrimped on defense. With an essentially bankrupt continent desperately cutting back on government spending, Europe’s military outlays will fall further. Washington’s finances are equally bad: the United States also should cut military expenditures, especially for Europe.
The transatlantic alliance was created in 1949 as relations with the Soviet Union grew frosty. The image of the Red Army pouring through the Fulda Gap fueled Western nightmares.
Nevertheless, NATO always stood for North (America) and the Others. In the alliance’s early years the European members understandably concentrated on economic reconstruction. But they never stopped leaving the heavy military lifting to the United States.
Washington regularly begged its allies to increase their defense outlays and they regularly agreed to do so. Then they just as regularly reneged, citing domestic needs and political obstacles. By the 1980s the Europeans actively opposed U.S. initiatives in Central America and elsewhere.
But America continued to protect its errant allies.
Then came the collapse of Communism. What then was the purpose of NATO, the quintessential anti-Soviet alliance?
Today Europe no longer needs defending. There is no more threatening Red Army. Moscow possesses only a limited conventional capability and has no interest in marching on Warsaw or Budapest, let alone Berlin or Paris. The European Union collectively possesses a larger population and economy than does America.
NATO fans first responded with proposals that the alliance deal with illicit drugs and the environment. Then it promoted regional integration by expanding into Central and Eastern Europe. None of these missions made much sense. NATO is a military alliance. The European Union always was a better vehicle for achieving nonmilitary ends.
Next NATO went to war “out of area,” launching an aggressive war against Serbia—which had threatened no alliance member—to settle ethnic conflict in Kosovo. But the Balkans mattered far more to Europe than to the United States.
Now there is the mission in Afghanistan. Alas, that remains primarily America’s war. The most important allied assistance comes from just a handful of states and could be provided bilaterally. (Australia already does so outside of NATO.) Most European states have deployed small contingents, hamstrung by “caveats,” or combat restrictions, well away from the battlefield. All are looking for the exit.
Along the way NATO expansion has made America less secure. Bringing in the Balkan and Baltic countries added liabilities with precious few capabilities. Adding Georgia and Ukraine to the alliance would be even worse, creating huge security black holes. Neither country is remotely relevant to U.S. security. America’s membership in NATO is supposed to protect America, not make other states more secure by increasing the risk to Americans.
After leaving military affairs largely to America, leading Europeans retained a delusion of turning the European Union into a Weltmacht. They touted the Lisbon Treaty, which created a new president and foreign minister and promoted a “common security and defense policy.” However, the treaty has delivered bureaucratic confusion rather than continental confidence—there now are three different presidents (two permanent and one rotating) squabbling over organizational primacy. The “High Representative” for foreign affairs has spent more time negotiating with EU politicians than foreign nations.
More important, the Europeans still refuse to develop militaries warranting a new European foreign and defense policy. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen admitted that the system “will remain a paper tiger if it is not followed by concrete contributions when we need concrete military contributions.”
However, there is not the slightest chance that such contributions will be forthcoming. Most European nations have steadily cut defense spending over the last two decades. Just five meet the NATO objective of 2 percent of GDP for their militaries. Several are closer to 1 percent or even below. And the numbers are likely to go down even more. Reported the Wall Street Journal: “Governments in France, Germany, Spain and Italy, in rolling out recent austerity measures in response to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, have promised that their militaries won’t be spared in coming spending cuts.” The United Kingdom’s Defense Minister Liam Fox has pledged to cut “ruthlessly and without sentiment.”
The Europeans’ roughly forty thousand troops on station in Afghanistan also will fall. These deployments are everywhere unpopular. The Dutch government recently fell over a dispute on extending the mission. Even British politicians are talking about bringing their forces home.
The newer members of NATO, supposedly more worried about the still testy Russian Bear, have behaved no differently. In a study for the Strategic Studies Institute, Col. Joel Hillison observed: ”While Russian military expenditures began to rise after 2001, the average defensive burden of these new members continued their gradual fall.”
Some Americans fulminate against the Europeans, calling them wimps and worse. For instance, Robert Kaplan dismissed European “decadence.” He contended:
With their patriotism dissipated, European governments can no longer ask for sacrifices from their populations when it comes to questions of peace and war. Ironically, we may have gained victory in the Cold War, but lost Europe in the process.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was a bit more polite when he charged in February: