America’s allies in Europe are sandbagging Uncle Sam

By Daniel R. DePetris

On March 11, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a bipartisan letter to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, inviting him to address a joint session of Congress. “During this critical time for the United States, NATO, and the European Union,” the letter reads, “the U.S. Congress and the American people look forward to your message of friendship and partnership.” While nostalgic for the past, post-Cold War NATO is a shell of its former self.  Outside of the United States, the alliance’s military capabilities are lacking and NATO is simply unprepared for great power contingencies. Rather than a traditional alliance with a stronger power backing up junior but still capable partners, NATO mimics a dysfunctional club where the U.S. operates as funder, provider, and gatekeeper.

One foreign policy issue President Trump has dedicated significant attention too is burden-sharing, the process of rebalancing the monetary contributions within the NATO alliance between the United States on one side and everybody else on the other. While many lawmakers and NATO boosters in Washington decry the president’s tough tactics, Trump’s overall objective—incentivizing non-U.S. members to increase their own military budgets in league with their commitment of spending 2 percent of GDP on national defense—is both strategically sound and fiscally appropriate.

The lopsided monetary and military investments from NATO’s member states has been a constant complaint from U.S. administrations from as far back as the 1950’s, when President Dwight Eisenhower lambasted the French for refusing to deploy more of its military personnel towards the alliance’s collective capability.

For decades, U.S. national security officials have repeatedly espoused this theme. In a rousing 2011 speech in Brussels, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned America’s NATO allies that the unwillingness to begin acting as security contributors rather than security burdens was both unfair to the American taxpayer and dangerous to collective security. As Gates said at the time, "[T]he blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources … in their own defense.”

While NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has reported a slow rise in European defense spending, much of the money is spent on personnel costs and salaries rather than the hard combat power that serves as the backbone of a military alliance.  Even the United Kingdom is not immune to this problem; a 2016 report from the House of Commons Defense Committee finds that U.K. has met the 2 percent GDP requirement in part on a “revised accounting strategy,” such as the inclusion of war and civil pensions to the budget.  

Despite much pushing and prodding from Washington, NATO remains an organization treading water on the backs of the American taxpayer. As the recently published annual NATO report shows, only seven of NATO’s 29 members meet the alliance’s 2 percent of GDP benchmark. Sixteen countries  have no plan (and are on no trajectory) to meet their spending obligations, a development that exhibits complete disregard for Article 3 of the NATO charter and disrespects the entire concept of shared responsibilities under an alliance. Indeed, despite having the financial resources to invest and prepare their own militaries for the emerging period of great power conflict, the vast majority of Europe remains far more comfortable outsourcing security responsibilities to Washington. Pronouncements of a more unified NATO can’t hide the fact that 69 percent of the alliance’s total defense expenditure is spent by a single country—the United States.

The problem, however, is not one of numbers. It is one of capability.

The militaries of Europe’s major powers have atrophied since the fall of the Soviet Union. The French military is almost completely dependent on Washington for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for operating in Africa, a limitation that severely impacts Paris’ ability to contribute to the alliance in the event of a great power conflict.

The German military is a shell of its former self. A parliamentary report published in January finds a depressing absence of hard-power capacity across the Bundeswehr. Less than 50 percent of the German military’s tanks, ships, and aircraft are available for deployment at any given time, and Berlin problems with recruitment are slowly draining the army of manpower. German soldiers don’t even possess the most basic equipment—during a trip to Lithuania, U.S. military officials were disturbed to discover the 450 German troops stationed as part of NATO’s forward deterrence mission communicating with regular cell phones. Apparently providing secure radios is too much to ask for.

These trends are alarming not only for the German military, but also for the U.S. military. In the event of a war, U.S. troops would be fighting side-to-side with the soldiers of allied countries who are unprepared, under-quipped, and untested. The more outstretched European militaries are for the most elementary equipment, the higher the risk to American soldiers who are asked to defend the security of the European continent.

When Stoltenberg delivers his address to a joint session of Congress in April, Americans will hear the same familiar talking points—that NATO is the most successful military alliance in history; is ready to respond when called; and remains bounded by the values of friendship and unity.

The reality is that in a world without a Soviet juggernaut to contend with, NATO is an organization trying to keep itself in business. As Barry Posen, a professor of political science at MIT, wrote in The New York Times op-ed, "NATO’s founding mission has been achieved and replaced with unsuccessful misadventures.” Some of those misadventures—such as the 2011 regime-change campaign in Libya—have created even more security problems, from the proliferation of terrorist networks in North Africa to an ongoing refugee crisis.

One can quibble with how the Trump administration has tackled the problem. But one can’t oppose the goal. With some of the wealthiest economies on the planet, America’s partners in Europe should do more to defend Europe. They can afford to invest in their own defense. Washington should no longer be expected to pick up the tab.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on March 19, 2019. Read more HERE.