More notable is who is missing. France, which along with the UK possesses the continent’s most capable militaries. Paris pledged to try to get to 2 percent—after the current president’s term ends. Germany, whose chancellor, Angela Merkel, speaks of a more independent Europe. Berlin spends only 1.24 percent on a military in veritable crisis, ill-prepared to deploy to meet any serious contingency. The current coalition government will not meet its 2 percent commitment, nor will the new administrations in both Italy, Spain, and other influential European states. Overall, the Europeans will remain as dependent as before, while now deflecting criticism by pointing to welcome though minimal progress.
This illustrates the problem with the 2 percent standard. It is simultaneously too high and too low.
European governments find it difficult to increase military outlays because European peoples feel little need to do so. Vladimir Putin is a nasty character, but he isn’t Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, or Benito Mussolini. He is a Russian nationalist, not a communist ideologue. His security vision appears to be that of a Tsar of old: Russia want secure borders and international respect. He expects to be consulted along with other world leaders about international problems.
Georgia was easy prey. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have long had a separate identity and been at odds with their Georgian rulers. Backing their independence was payback for Kosovo and created a frozen conflict inhibiting Tbilisi’s entry into NATO.
Ukraine was similar. Imagine how Washington would have reacted to comparable Soviet meddling in Mexico. Crimea, contained an important Sebastopol naval base, was historically Russian and contained an ethnic Russian majority which probably wanted to return to Moscow’s embrace. Fomenting conflict in the Donbas weakened Ukraine and likely kept it out of the transatlantic alliance as well.
Neither of these Russian interventions, though lawless and unjustified, was a portent for European-wide aggression. “Winning” would offer few benefits; even Putin has not sought to rule over non-Russian populations. And the result almost certainly would be economic isolation and full-scale war, which Moscow would be bound to lose. Indeed, the United States and Russia are the two nations fully capable of destroying each other with nuclear weapons.
If there is no Slavic Menace, then what? Nothing much. Europe faces its share of international problems, such as terrorism, cyber attacks and economic migrants, but its most important concerns are internal. The Europeans might want to arm to participate in wars of choice, but most of them are dubious ventures. For instance, France triggered the most dramatic attacks on Paris by warring upon the Islamic State. Europe should be capable, but prudent as well.
If there is no there there, in terms of threat, then why should Europeans spend more on defense? Why spend two percent on militaries which have no obvious role? Maybe even one percent is too much for most European states. Outlays always will be unstable unless there is steady public support for strengthening the armed forces.
However, if there is some as yet undisclosed menace which warrants American involvement in the continent’s defense, then two percent of GDP is far too low. After all, Europe’s economy is equivalent to America’s. Europe’s population is larger. If the Europeans need to be defended against someone, they have the wherewithal to do so. If they don’t believe the threat warrants devoting even a couple pennies on the dollar to defense, why should the United States spend anything on them? NATO was formed to protect war-ravaged states which could not alone deter the battle-tested Red Army from marching to the Atlantic. Today the Europeans have vastly greater economic strength and significantly larger population than Russia. The Europeans even spend much more on their militaries. There’s no reason for Americans to garrison the Baltics, Poland, and more in Europe.
President Trump insisted that NATO has “got to start paying your bills.” But such arguments are divisive without yielding much benefit in military effectiveness. Instead of arguing about money, upon which President Trump appears to fixate, the administration should decide what it is willing to do. First, Washington should turn Europe’s defense over to Europe. Other than being ready to act if something went drastically wrong and the revived Red Army ended up marching down the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, the United States should view European security with benign neglect. Europeans then would make their military decisions based on their own needs, with the knowledge that they could not offload the problem onto America. How much do they worry and how much are they willing to do in response?
Second, Washington should suggest continuing cooperation over shared interests beyond Europe. That could be both geographic (such as the Middle East) or subject matter (cybersecurity and terrorism). The United Kingdom and France are likely to maintain out-of-area foreign interests, while other Europeans less so. However, the United States, too, should be more circumspect in its foreign entanglements. Iraq was a disaster. Libya was foolish and counterproductive. The endless war in Afghanistan is without purpose. American forces should stay out of the Syrian civil war. If Europe and America were not unnecessarily yoked together in alliance, then they would be less likely to drag each other into the other’s favorite senseless wars (e.g., Libya for Europe, Afghanistan for America). Rather, any joint conflicts would have to be important for both sides.
Such a division of responsibilities suggests refashioning NATO. The Europeans could take over the alliance, perhaps with America as an associate member. Or they could turn NATO into something more closely aligned with the European Union, though again offering intermediate status for Washington. The alliance structure would retain the connection between the European and American militaries, encouraging cooperation and coordination. Most important, the United States and various European states could decide on their military outlays based on their own requirements. No longer would Washington attempt to browbeat friendly states into spending more than their populations desired. The more distant relationship could ironically be a smoother and more satisfying one.