A time for Europe to step up

In un­cer­tain times, NATO mem­bers’ de­fense spend­ing is more im­por­tant than ever.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

WE DON’T blame Amer­ica’s Euro­pean al­lies for fret­ting about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­pact on their se­cu­rity. Far too much for any­one’s com­fort, Pres­i­dent Trump has talked up U.S. re­la­tions with Rus­sia and talked down its long-stand­ing com­mit­ment to the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion, call­ing it an “ob­so­lete” al­liance, whose non-U.S. mem­bers “aren’t pay­ing what they should.” And all of that is not to men­tion Europe’s angst about mak­ing com­mon cause with a pres­i­dent who seems to have a very dif­fer­ent no­tion of Western val­ues than his pre­de­ces­sors did — or the Euro­peans do.

Mr. Trump’s words re­gard­ing NATO have been sloppy and un­wise, and the re­as­sur­ing mes­sage Mr. Trump’s de­fense sec­re­tary, Jim Mattis, of­fered in Brus­sels last week off­set them only some­what. Yet in a way, Europe was warned: In 2011, Robert Gates, sec­re­tary of de­fense un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, told a Brus­sels au­di­ence that the transat­lantic al­lies’ fail­ure to keep up their mil­i­tary spend­ing could lead to a U.S. back­lash against them, or even aban­don­ment. “If cur­rent trends in the de­cline of Euro­pean de­fense ca­pa­bil­i­ties are not halted and re­versed,” Gates said, “fu­ture U.S. po­lit­i­cal lead­ers . . . may not con­sider the re­turn on Amer­ica’s in­vest­ment in NATO worth the cost.” To this day, how­ever, only two ma­jor NATO na­tions ex­cept for the United States spend 2 per­cent of their eco­nomic out­put on de­fense, as the al­liance ex­pects.

Among the worst of­fend­ers is Europe’s rich­est and most in­flu­en­tial coun­try, Ger­many, which spends about 1.2 per­cent of out­put — a lower per­cent­age than Por­tu­gal’s. Of the $100 bil­lion needed for Europe and Canada to meet their an­nual de­fense obli­ga­tions, $30 bil­lion would have to come from Ger­many, ac­cord­ing to for­mer NATO of­fi­cial Fabrice Poth­ier. To be fair, the 2 per­cent bench­mark is a bit ar­bi­trary; it can in­clude items that don’t af­fect cur­rent ca­pa­bil­i­ties, such as mil­i­tary pen­sions. What’s more, Ber­lin has been ramp­ing up spend­ing in re­cent years, de­spite its own pub­lic’s at­tach­ment to paci­fism and fis­cal dis­ci­pline, and de­spite the need not to frighten its neigh­bors, who have long mem­o­ries about the last time a uni­fied Ger­many ex­panded its mil­i­tary power.

For all that, when Mr. Mattis in­structed the Euro­pean al­lies to do more last week, he was only telling them to act in their clear self-in­ter­est. There are two pos­si­bil­i­ties: The first is that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s as­sur­ances of sup­port for NATO, which Mr. Mattis re­peated, are insin­cere, in which case Europe will soon need more in­de­pen­dent ca­pa­bil­ity against Rus­sia and other threats. The sec­ond is that transat­lantic ties are and will re­main strong and Mr. Trump is sim­ply try­ing to cut a bet­ter deal so as to en­hance the al­liance’s le­git­i­macy with an in­creas­ingly skep­ti­cal Amer­i­can elec­torate. Ei­ther way, Europe would be wise to hedge by ac­cel­er­at­ing in­vest­ment in its long-ne­glected ca­pa­bil­i­ties. It is a good sign that Ger­man De­fense Min­is­ter Ur­sula von der Leyen promised more spend­ing in re­sponse to Mr. Mattis’s plea. “The U.S. is right,” Ms. von der Leyen said, re­fer­ring to the coun­try, not its leader. She, too, was right.

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