If candidate Donald Trump had one signature position, it was criticizing America’s populous, prosperous allies for leeching off the U.S. military. He even talked about charging them for the Pentagon’s services.
But like many other issues, he proved to be more bark than bite. Whether reflecting a lack of belief or attention, he left European policy to his Europhile officials, who told European leaders to ignore the president. “There is a lot more support for continuing our past policies than it might appear from some of the statements” of the president, observed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH): “The unanimity comes from those folks who are actually operationalizing policy.”
Although the president still caused a scene when he visited Europe—shoving the Montenegrin prime minister aside and failing to proclaim his support for NATO’s Article 5—he did nothing practical to reduce the defense dependence of America’s allies. He later deluded himself in claiming that “money is pouring in,” but his officials have been pleading for the Europeans to do more, just like members of most every administration dating back to the formation of the transatlantic alliance have done.
Last week Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was in Europe to lobby the nations America is subsidizing, always a thankless task. Having pushed a National Security Strategy which pointed to Russia as a supposed serious security threat, he was desperate for the Europeans—who are a good deal closer to Moscow—to act like they shared the administration’s fears.
They obviously don’t. The Europeans are spending a bit more recently, but the increase looks impressive only compared to how much and long military outlays fell in recent years. New figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted that European military outlays last year—three years after Russia detached Crimea from Ukraine—were still lower than in 2010. Just three of NATO’s members, patsy America, geopolitical midget Estonia, and economically decrepit Greece, which is worried far more about Turkey than Moscow, made the official 2 percent of GDP standard for military outlays.
Depending on how the year goes, the United Kingdom, traditionally possessing the continent’s most robust military, minor leaguers Latvia and Lithuania, marginal Romania, and nationalistic Poland may hit that level next year. Missing from the list are the other major European powers: Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
Embarrassed NATO officials argue that members are doing better and, anyway, fifteen countries have plans to hit 2 percent by 2024. However, most countries are as likely to fulfill their pledges as European members in the past, when they routinely promised Washington to do more to deter the Soviet Army, and then spent the money on their welfare states, again.
Particularly outrageous is the case of Germany. Last year the federal republic hit a dismal 1.22 percent of GDP. Alas, admitted Hans-Peter Bartels, parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces: “The hard currency, in which the success of the minister is measured, is the readiness of the Bundeswehr. And that has not really improved in the last four years, but rather has become worse.” Stories abound of helicopters grounded for repair, submarines unavailable for action and tanks needing repair or overhaul. Small detachments could be sent for missions, but, said Bartels, “the Bundeswehr as a whole cannot currently be used in the collective defense,” such as defending Europe from Russia.
Chancellor Angela Merkel promised to reach 2 percent of GDP by 2024, but no one believed Berlin was going to almost double defense outlays. In fact, the number is falling this year to 1.13 percent. Although her party reiterated its support for the 2 percent objective in last year’s election, her Social Democratic partners in the so-called Grand Coalition attacked the pledge as “crazy” and impossible to fulfill. The parties’ coalition agreement provides a draft budget of 1.15 percent of GDP in 2021. Berlin plans to leave the defending to Washington. As do most of NATO’s other members.
Not that reality influences alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who said the rest of NATO’s members are supposed to submit plans for reaching 2 percent of GDP by 2024. No doubt, they will. And equally certain, they will flout those plans. “My message is to do more,” said Stoltenberg: “We all have to do more.”
Actually, the Europeans don’t have to do more, which is precisely the problem.
They obviously could do so. Germany’s GDP is more than twice as large as Russia’s. France, Italy and Canada also have larger economies. Collectively Europe has about eleven times Russia’s GDP. Using purchasing power parity as the measure rather than exchange rates closes the economic gap some, but Germany still outranges Russia and Europe remains far ahead.
Several European nations have economic problems, of course. However, European leaders have been complaining that recent increased growth makes it harder for them to meet the 2 percent standard. Apparently it doesn’t occur to them that greater wealth enables them to, well, spend more.