America Must Ask More of Its NATO Allies
The president’s 2019 budget proposes a 30 percent increase—to $6.5 billion—for the European Deterrence Initiative, a program that pays for deployments of U.S. military units in Europe, exercises, and training events, and other initiatives designed to deter Russia and reassure allies. As part of the bargain with those allies, however, Washington is insisting that they show the same level of commitment.
Cajoling allies into more equitable burden-sharing—something every U.S. administration has attempted since the mid-1960s—or making America’s commitment to Article 5 conditional on allies paying their fair share—something unique to then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016—historically hasn’t worked well. Instead, the United States should focus on leveraging other aspects of its role within the alliance in order to get allies to spend more on defense, share burdens fairly, and maintain democratic norms at home.
Even though European allies have spent billions of Euros, deployed tens of thousands of troops, and suffered nearly nine hundred combat deaths supporting the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the Trump administration has focused single-mindedly on the issue of equitable burden-sharing. In truth, most European militaries are today under-resourced, under-manned, and ill-equipped for post–ISAF security challenges. Most NATO allies in Europe can and should spend more on defense and security.
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Arguably as important, but apparently of less concern to the current administration given the burden-sharing mantra of top U.S. officials, is the rise of illiberal governance in Turkey, Poland and Hungary. Over the past few years the ruling parties of these U.S. treaty allies have each undermined democratic institutions, consolidated power and authority, and curbed the independence of nongovernmental organizations and civil society.
One way of incentivizing increased defense spending and/or a greater commitment to democracy and human rights would be to condition U.S. military deployments or other activities under the European Deterrence Initiative on allied behavior. The more an ally spends on defense, resurrects judicial independence, or promotes civil society, the more American military goodies it would receive in the form of troop deployments, exercises, and so forth.
Unfortunately, this approach smacks of the same Article 5 conditionality that presidential candidate Donald Trump pitched in 2016—“good” allies get the promise of U.S. boots on the ground and protection while “bad” allies get uncertainty. Among European allies, conditionality creates the very instability that the NATO treaty was designed to eliminate in the first place, ultimately undermining U.S. security and economic well-being. Meanwhile, U.S. conditionality toward European allies raises questions in Moscow about what Americans are willing to fight and die for, opens the door for Russia’s revisionist adventurism, and ultimately leads to strategic instability, none of which are in the interest of the United States.
Luckily, there are better options for achieving U.S. goals than through European allies. When it comes to defense spending, commonly held security threat perceptions—especially among policymakers and informed elites—are vital. This means continuing to break down barriers to intelligence-sharing with our allies, an especially difficult feat given the American propensity for over-classification.
Washington should also leverage allies’ desire for prestige, and the domestic political rewards that come with it. Political leaders everywhere relish being perceived as carrying weight in international circles, as having the respect of other leaders, and as being able to bring home the bacon when it comes to shared multinational resources.
For instance, the United States could work within NATO to permit only allies who are meeting spending targets or who are models of democratic governance to host alliance summit meetings. These meetings are expensive and challenging to organize and run, but they are often highly sought after by NATO’s members for the prestige and attention they bring.
Similarly, alliance member states strive, often aggressively, to have their generals and admirals assigned to NATO positions. Washington should insist that the majority of NATO slots be filled with officers from those countries that are meeting spending targets, or from those countries that are not backsliding when it comes to democracy and human rights.