A thread­bare al­liance

NATO mem­bers must pony up if they ex­pect the U.S. to stand with them

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Daniel DePetris

His­to­ri­ans and po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists com­monly de­scribe the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion (NATO) as the most ef­fec­tive mil­i­tary al­liance in con­tem­po­rary his­tory. It was the bond be­tween the United States and Western Europe that helped con­trib­ute to the de­cline and even­tual col­lapse of the Soviet Union. Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s an­nounce­ment this week that she seeks to sub­stan­tially in­crease the amount of money de­voted to the de­fense bud­get is a crit­i­cal step in the right di­rec­tion if Eu­ro­pean lead­ers still want the al­liance to serve its de­ter­rent func­tion

NATO’s has changed its man­date and pres­ence in the 21st cen­tury as new mem­bers have been in­ducted into the club. Un­for­tu­nately, the vast ma­jor­ity of NATO mem­bers has been un­will­ing to de­vote 2 per­cent of their gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP) to­ward de­fense, a re­quire­ment for all al­liance con­trib­u­tors. NATO is no longer ex­clu­sively con­fined to the de­fense of Eu­ro­pean val­ues and se­cu­rity against the Rus­sian army; over the past 15 years, the al­liance has gone off the Eu­ro­pean reser­va­tion and sup­ported the U.S. mil­i­tary in coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sions in Afghanistan, as­sisted with train­ing of the Iraqi army, en­gaged in ki­netic op­er­a­tions in Libya, and pa­trolled Eu­ro­pean wa­ters in anti-piracy and counter-mi­gra­tion ef­forts.

De­spite NATO’s mis­sion creep — tak­ing an of­fen­sive role, rather than de­fen­sive, in more re­gions of the world — the al­liance is still heav­ily de­pen­dent on the United States for the lion’s share of its mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity. The most re­cent de­fense ex­pen­di­tures from the North At­lantic Coun­cil shows just how lop­sided Eu­ro­pean con­tri­bu­tions to­ward the al­liance are.

In 2015, Wash­ing­ton spent ap­prox­i­mately $618 bil­lion on its de­fense ac­counts com­pared to the roughly $253 bil­lion that have been ex­pended by the other 27 mem­bers. This amounts to 3.37 per­cent of Amer­ica’s GDP to­ward de­fense, well over the 2 per­cent thresh­old that NATO recom­mit­ted it­self to achiev­ing dur­ing its last sum­mit. Eu­ro­pean mem­bers, in con­trast, av­er­aged 1.43 per­cent for their de­fense ac­counts. And of that 1.43 per­cent, only four Eu­ro­pean coun­tries — the United King­dom, Poland, Es­to­nia and Greece — were com­ply­ing with the very bench­marks that are sup­posed to com­prise NATO pol­icy.

U.S. of­fi­cials across party lines have long rec­og­nized that this ar­range­ment sim­ply isn’t fair to the Amer­i­can tax­payer or sus­tain­able for the al­liance as a whole. Wash­ing­ton has long lob­bied its Eu­ro­pean part­ners to con­trib­ute more re­sources to­ward its own de­fense than they cur­rently are — a mes­sage that ap­pears to res­onate with Eu­ro­pean lead­ers, but has been dif­fi­cult to ac­tu­ally im­ple­ment at a time when much of Europe is still re­cov­er­ing from stag­na­tion and re­ces­sion.

Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, how­ever, has proven to be a wel­come ex­cep­tion to this trend. Ear­lier this sum­mer, Mrs. Merkel told mem­bers of her party that Ber­lin needed to be an ex­am­ple for the rest of Europe by be­gin­ning to take NATO’s de­fense spend­ing re­quire­ments far more se­ri­ously. This week, she dou­bled down on that mes­sage in an­other party con­fer­ence, ar­gu­ing that Ger­many and the rest of Europe can­not op­er­ate on the 20th cen­tury as­sump­tion that the United States will con­tinue to pick up the tab for Europe’s ex­ter­nal de­fense. “We have to spend more for our ex­ter­nal se­cu­rity,” Mrs. Merkel said. “The con­flicts of this world are cur­rently on Europe’s doorstep, mas­sively so.”

Mrs. Merkel’s calls for an in­crease in Ger­man de­fense spend­ing will be a tough one to sell to a pub­lic tra­di­tion­ally weary of for­eign en­tan­gle­ments. Her po­lit­i­cal ri­vals will likely go after her and la­bel her party pro-war. But if NATO is to re­main rel­e­vant be­yond this decade, the blunt re­al­ity is that Euro­peans need to step up to the plate and ac­tu­ally rein­vest a larger share of their bud­gets to­ward parts of the de­fense bud­get that go be­yond health care costs for sol­diers al­ready in uni­form, and the main­te­nance of in­fras­truc­ture and com­mand head­quar­ters that are al­ready in place. At the bare min­i­mum, funds must be de­voted to ac­qui­si­tion of state-of-theart hard­ware, prepa­ra­tion, readi­ness, train­ing, spe­cial op­er­a­tions, war gam­ing and in­ter-al­liance plan­ning — all of which Eu­ro­pean gov­ern­ments have been re­luc­tant to touch over the past 25 years. The United States, mired in its own mas­sive debt prob­lem grow­ing to $20 tril­lion and be­yond, can­not and should not con­tinue bail­ing out the Euro­peans, par­tic­u­larly if lead­er­ship on the Con­ti­nent has made the po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion that na­tional se­cu­rity is a sec­ond-tier pri­or­ity. In­deed, to do so would be an ab­di­ca­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity on the part of U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers at a time when Amer­i­cans are be­com­ing more con­cerned about how their money is be­ing spent.

Ac­cord­ing to the Chicago Coun­cil on Global Af­fairs, 65 per­cent of Amer­i­cans be­lieve that NATO is an es­sen­tial tool to meet U.S. for­eign pol­icy ob­jec­tives. The Amer­i­can pub­lic clearly re­al­izes that nur­tur­ing an ex­ten­sive de­fense re­la­tion­ship with Europe is a use­ful pol­icy to pur­sue. Those num­bers, how­ever, will de­cline in the years ahead and sup­port for NATO will likely de­grade in the United States if low Eu­ro­pean de­fense spend­ing re­mains a re­al­ity. A mil­i­tary al­liance is only as cred­i­ble as the will­ing­ness of its mem­ber­ship to fi­nan­cially con­trib­ute what they promised, a ne­ces­sity if the con­cept of de­ter­rence is to be re­spected by ad­ver­saries.

Other Eu­ro­pean politi­cians must fol­low Mrs. Merkel’s lead and come to the con­clu­sion that bur­den-shar­ing isn’t a bud­get bur­den on Europe, but a crit­i­cal part of main­tain­ing a mil­i­tary al­liance that has lasted for nearly seven decades. And across the At­lantic, Amer­ica’s elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives must do their part as well to en­sure that NATO is uni­fied, durable, adap­tive, pre­pared for var­i­ous con­tin­gen­cies, and ready to act to­gether on short no­tice. That means guard­ing against the oc­cu­pa­tional hazard of the Amer­i­can tax­payer get­ting fleeced as the quick­est way to make all of this hap­pen Daniel DePetris is a fel­low at De­fense Pri­or­i­ties.

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