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Europe Still Doesn't Take Its Own Defense Seriously

24 Feb 2018

Doug Bandow

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.

If European states today
are vulnerable to outside attack or coercion, it is their own

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.

Anyway, Russia’s economic difficulties are greater still,
with the economy disproportionately based on natural resources,
distorted by state manipulation, and burdened by sanctions. In the
long-term America may be worst of all. Although the Europeans have
racked up higher official debt, Washington has far more unfunded
liabilities, an astounding $210 trillion, 10.5 times America’
national debt and GDP, according to the calculation of economist
Laurence Kotlikoff. Washington can continue to underwrite a growing
elderly population, fund an inefficient health care system, and
subsidize the defense of wealthy allies for only so long before
financial collapse impends.

The reason the Europeans don’t spend more on their
militaries is because they don’t have to. First, they really
don’t fear for their security. A Russian attempt to conquer
Europe is about as likely as a Martian invasion or zombie
apocalypse. Vladimir Putin is a nasty character, but demonstrates
neither ideological animus toward America and Europe nor
megalomaniacal fantasies about continental or global domination.
Russia would lose any full-scale war, and grabbing a small country
along its border, one of the Baltic States, perhaps, would yield no
meaningful benefit. Start a war, suffer needless casualties, risk
nuclear annihilation, and guarantee economic and political
isolation in order to rule over what remains after military
battles, physical destruction, capital flight, and fleeing
refugees. Great plan.

Of course, the Baltic as well as Polish governments berate their
fellow Europeans for lax military efforts. Polish Prime Minister
Mateusz Morawiecki complained that “if we want to be more
self-reliant and self-sufficient, we really have to cater for our
security in a much better way.” He criticized NATO members
that fell short of the 2 percent standard of being “free
riders who live under Pax Americana but pretend to be
self-sufficient in the context of security.” He is right but
why should they behave any differently, since they don’t
share his fear of Russian aggression?

Second, the Europeans do live under “Pax Americana.”
Thus, they believe Washington will save them if there’s a
problem. And that now is President Trump’s fault.

There was a brief moment after his election when European
leaders were worried. In fact, there was a strong European presence
at the Democratic Party convention, where those concerned about the
survival of America’s defense dole received assurances that
all would be well under President Hillary Clinton. Thus, Donald
Trump’s election came as an especially horrid shock to them.
Had the president followed up his election victory with a
commitment to reduce America’s subsidies for nations well
able to defend themselves—and acted on that promise—the
Europeans would have been forced to decide how concerned they were
about their security and what they were prepared to do to safeguard

But they quickly realized that he was, in Mao-speak, a paper
tiger. Secretaries Mattis and Rex Tillerson indicated that
Washington remained as committed as ever to NATO. The president
occasionally fulminated but did nothing to turn those sentiments
into policy. The Europeans talked big about doing more, as they
often had done in the past, and then backed away as the lights
faded. And that isn’t going to change, no matter how much
Secretary Mattis urges, insists, demands, and maybe even whines. As
long as the United States continues to spend more, even upping its
outlays specifically targeted for Europe’s defense, the
Europeans can safely spend less.

Ultimately, the Europeans should decide what they need to spend
to protect their nations and continent. It isn’t up to
Washington to dictate. But the United States should stop
underwriting their defense. American support was necessary at the
conclusion of World War II. However, Europe’s dependence long
ago outlasted the continent’s economic and political
weakness. If European states today are vulnerable to outside attack
or coercion, it is their own fault. Washington should let its NATO
allies know that starting today, they will be responsible for their
own futures, and the consequences of failing to act will become
theirs, and theirs alone.

Doug Bandow is
a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant
to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies:
America’s New Global Empire.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal