The future is not likely to be much better. Military spending by the continent’s small states has little impact on overall spending while the five most economically significant European countries range from awful to unimpressive. Most notably, Germany was at a dismal 1.23 percent of GDP last year. Moreover, the Bundeswehr’s readiness is terrible. Two years ago the Rand Corporation estimated it would take a month for Berlin to mobilize a heavy armored brigade. In January Bundestag Military Commissioner Hans-Peter Bartels reported that few of the Bundeswehr’s shortcomings had been fixed, despite increased expenditures: “There is neither enough personnel nor materiel, and often one confronts shortage upon shortage.” Having previously agreed to hit two percent in 2024, Chancellor Merkel now says Berlin will do so in the early 2030s. Even if her latest assurance was credible, her current coalition faces potential collapse and she might be out of office as early as next year. If the Left forms an upcoming government military outlays are likely to go into reverse.
Fourth, the Europeans know that they can rely on the U.S. to act irrespective of how little they contribute to their militaries. For years Washington has whined, complained, demanded, begged, and insisted that its allies do more, without noticeable effect. Only Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine triggered the beginning of a modest increase in European military outlays, which predates Trump’s demands. Even when he and past presidents insisted that America’s allies do more, their administrations have conducted business as usual and emissaries have visited Europe dedicated to “reassuring” even Europe’s laggards of Washington’s eternal commitment to defend the continent no matter what. Virtually every Trump appointee at State and Defense has undercut the president’s dramatic rhetoric by insisting on America’s unshakeable commitment to maintaining the Pentagon’s defense dole, actually increasing the money spent on and troops deployed to Europe.
Fifth, Europeans are well able to defend themselves. Although maybe not easily with their current force structure. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas insisted that “Without the United States, we are currently unable to protect ourselves.” Yes, currently, because Europe does not spend more and does so more effectively. Europe has an equivalent economy and a larger population than America. The continent possesses eleven times the economic strength and nearly four times the population of Russia. Already Europeans devote four times as much as Moscow to the armed forces. And Europe could do much more. Collective action obviously can be difficult, but that could be eased by a sense of urgency. The continent doesn’t do more because it doesn’t want to do more, not because it can’t do more.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg went further, contending that “we need to avoid any perception that Europe can manage without NATO, because two World Wars and the Cold War taught us that we need a strong transatlantic bond to preserve peace and stability in Europe.” He apparently hasn’t noticed that fascism, Nazism, and communism have disappeared from the continent. The greatest barrier to the Europeans managing without America’s aid is their lengthy dependence on the U.S. That makes the transition more complicated and perhaps traumatic, but not impossible.
Sixth, many Europeans don’t want to defend each other, or America. In a YouGov survey earlier this year, only 42 percent of French, 53 percent of Germans, and 59 percent of Britons believed the alliance had an important role to play in the continent’s defense. Almost uniformly, Europeans were more concerned about terrorism, which the alliance is ill-equipped to handle, than invasion. The willingness of people in NATO members to aid allied states varied dramatically, with support in some cases falling into the teens. There was inconsistent backing for military action even in the most important alliance members. For instance, the majority of French and British were mostly unwilling to defend other states, except each other.
When asked whether they should favor Russia or the U.S. in a conflict, a 2019 European Council on Foreign Relations survey found an overwhelming majority in 14 European countries answered neither. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that only four of ten Germans were willing to defend NATO allies, including America, from attack. The numbers were just 45 percent for Britons and 53 percent for French. Notably, while often disdaining the responsibility of their own nations to defend Europe, the majority of Europeans believed that the U.S. should do so. Even Macron was skeptical that countries would fulfill their treaty responsibility: “What will Article 5 mean tomorrow,” he recently asked?
Seventh, as long as NATO exists, talk of a European military, most obviously under the European Union, is nonsense. Existing governments are not willing to spend substantially more on their own forces. They won’t make significant increases to an existing alliance despite persistent browbeating by Washington and NATO officials. Substituting acronyms won’t convince Europeans to do more. Even France is unlikely to hike military outlays for both NATO and the EU. Only as an alternative to the transatlantic alliance does an EU-provided military make sense. Or NATO could be transferred to European control, with the U.S. becoming an associate member, to promote cooperation when in both the continent’s and America’s interests. However, given European attitudes today, the continent cannot easily support one military alliance, let alone two.
Eighth, proposals that NATO takes on additional duties appear to reflect a continuing search for relevance, like that launched after the Soviet Union’s collapse and threaten to detract from the alliance’s military mission. Such issues as cyber-security are important and warrant cooperation, but perhaps separate from the transatlantic alliance.
Even more disconnected from reality is the suggestion, which U.S. officials have been pushing, that Europe confronts China. Beijing’s economic contacts with the continent are significant and military threats are minimal. The Europeans cannot agree on the much more proximate “Russian threat.” Germany is planning a natural gas pipeline with Moscow, France’s Macron declared that Russia is not an enemy, and countries as diverse as Greece and Italy criticized continued economic sanctions. The likelihood that Europeans can reach a consensus on Beijing is nil. Macron already has dismissed the claim that China, too, is an adversary. Who imagines the UK and France, let alone Germany, Spain, and Italy, sending an expeditionary force to fight China over Taiwan or the South China Sea territorial disputes?
Ninth, an ever-growing alliance dependent on unanimity makes effective action increasingly difficult. The differences between Russia and the Middle East are large. The almost comical name dispute between Greece and the country now known as North Macedonia held up Skopje’s application to join NATO for years. Now Turkey is blocking action on, among other things, Baltic security plans, to force the other members to accept its demand to treat Syrian Kurds as terrorists. That comes after his government purchased Russian weapons, moved in an authoritarian and Islamist direction, and reoriented the military’s orientation from Western to nationalist.
Finally, America’s fiscal situation continues to deteriorate. Last year the federal budget deficit ran nearly a trillion dollars, the highest since 2012, after the U.S. fiscal crisis. The Congressional Budget Office expects the tsunami of red ink to continue, with rising national debt and annual interest payments. As the U.S. population continues to age and health care costs continue to rise, more resources will be diverted to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The only other areas to cut will be interest, which would require repudiating the debt, domestic discretionary outlays, which already have been reduced and account for barely 15 of total outlays, and the Pentagon. Elected officials are unlikely to place the interests of European nations before those of America’s elderly.
Although the Republican Party remains dominated by establishment interventionists, Democrats are divided on foreign policy. Politics is likely to increasingly shift against those advocating an expansive American global role. An increasing number of politicians are likely to follow Donald Trump in challenging a defense policy that has become an international dole for prosperous and populous allies. Especially when the latter demonstrates a well-developed sense of entitlement.
Consider: Last year the U.S. devoted $1900 per person to the military. The other 28 members averaged $503. Fifteen members came in at less than $300 per capita. While the Europeans are reluctant to protect their own continent, Americans also guard Asia, the Mideast, and increasingly Africa.
America’s allies want to keep their sweet deal. U.S. policymakers seem willing to go along. The White House declared that the “trans-Atlantic relationship is in a very, very healthy place.” In April Secretary Pompeo opined that the allies were meeting “to make sure that NATO is around for the next 70 years.”
However, the London summit offered no solutions to NATO’s fundamental infirmities. The attendees issued a declaration celebrating the alliance’s anniversary, pledged to spend more, confront multiple threats, “increase security for all,” and address new technologies. How will all of these be accomplished? By creating a new committee: “Taking into account the evolving strategic environment, we invite the Secretary-General to present to Foreign Ministers a Council-agreed proposal for a forward-looking reflection process under his auspices, drawing on relevant expertise, to further strengthen NATO’s political dimension including consultation.”