Europe once was a military power—many military powers, in fact. But no longer. Today Europe is turning into a continent without a military.
In January Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary general, lauded France for taking “decisive action” in Mali. Of course, Paris is likely to find that it is easier to disperse jihadist rebels than reestablish a stable state.
At the same time Rasmussen noted Europe’s gradual disarmament. The other European states have offered little help, prompting Arnaud Danjean, a French member of the European Parliament, to complain that “Europe cannot always give responsibility to one member state.”
His sentiment was echoed by Nick Witney, who once headed the European Defense Agency, who argued that the European Union “is paralyzed, seemingly unable to do more than offer rhetorical support to France and the individual member states that are chipping in with logistical assistance.” So Paris, naturally, has turned to America.
Alas, Rasmussen’s efforts to strengthen the European alliance so far have had little effect. Over the last five years, as noted by Stars and Stripes, “Cuts by countries as large as Germany and as small as Latvia have resulted in program cancellations, changed equipment orders and, in the case of Britain, a plan to mothball a new aircraft carrier.” Clara M. O’Donnell, a European scholar with the Brookings Institution, explained that “what we’re seeing is basically cuts in capability and little thought on what to replace them with.”
Libya was the Europeans’ war, yet they punched far below their weight. As Con Coughlin observed last month in the Daily Telegraph, in Libya “shortages of fundamental equipment, such as air-to-air refueling tankers, cruise missiles and ships, meant that the European military effort found itself at a distinct disadvantage the moment American firepower was no longer available.”
Nevertheless, NATO officials like Rasmussen count Libya a success. A year ago he contended: “If we are to respond to the challenges of tomorrow just as effectively [as in Libya], more allies should make sure they obtain and maintain those kinds of critical capabilities.” But the latest report acknowledged that the gap in military capabilities is widening among the European NATO members and between Europe and America.
Last month Rasmussen declared that “There is a lower limit on how little we can spend on defense.” But NATO members don’t seem to agree. In 2006 the NATO members promised to spend two percent of GDP on the military. Yet today the Europeans collectively spend 1.6 percent of GDP on defense, an astonishing one-third of America’s 4.8 percent.
Only Britain and Greece have joined America at above 2 percent, and Greece does so more to confront fellow NATO member Turkey than to assist Europe. Italy and Spain are devoting less than 1 percent to their militaries.
The alliance members also pledged to devote a fifth of military outlays to procurement. Just five of twenty-eight members do so. Jonathan Eyal of London’s Royal United Services Institute confirms this trend: “Almost every single initiative adopted by the alliance, to put it kindly, has not met with success.”
Rasmussen has launched a “smart defense” initiative, which he recently said “is the way forward for allies to develop and acquire critical capabilities.” However, multinational cooperation can succeed only if the Europeans do something. So far, figures O’Donnell, “smart defense” initiatives have saved less than 1 percent of the spending cuts imposed since 2008.
Some European states are essentially disarming. As Rasmussen explained, “Defense spending among the allies is increasingly uneven, not just between North America and Europe, but also among European allies.” All the Europeans save Britain, France, and Germany account for just 7.5 percent of NATO’s expenditures. Danjean declared that “Europe is giving up in terms of defense.”
No amount of whining by Washington will change this reality. There is no political will to increase outlays. And despite the Europeans’ unwillingness to fulfill their alliance responsibilities, some of them have criticized the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia. Panetta claimed that “Europe should not fear our rebalance to Asia; Europe should join it.” But the likelihood of the Europeans deploying military personnel in Asia is about as likely as the Europeans conquering Mars.
The Europeans rightly fear that the “pivot” will shift U.S. military resources from Europe. Yet there is no compelling reason why Washington should continue to protect the populous and prosperous continent from largely phantom threats.
The latest example of America defending a NATO member able to secure its own interests is the deployment of Patriot missiles backed by American personnel to Turkey. The Syrian civil war has spilled over the border, but Ankara has backed the opposition and aided rebel fighters. In any case, an attack on Turkey by the beleaguered Assad regime would be military suicide.
Even more disturbing is Europe’s assumption that America should fight the continent’s wars elsewhere. Philip Stephens observed in the Financial Times that “Europeans have caught the interventionist bug just as the U.S. has shaken it off. The French and the British led the war to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.They are in the vanguard of calls for intervention in Syria.” And the French charged into Mali.