American and NATO: Time for Rebalancing the Relationship

By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA, Ret.

The security of Europe simply cannot matter more to Washington than it does to the people who live there. Changes are both appropriate and necessary with regard to the obligations of our NATO allies.

President Trump has long argued for a more balanced sharing of the financial burden in NATO, and Army Secretary Mark Esper recently reinforced that view on a visit to Germany. “Two percent is the minimum,” he said, adding it was “important we all live up to our commitments because if not, it weakens the alliance.”

In 1988, the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall—when the Cold War was still fully in effect—the U.S.S.R. spent a staggering 15.8 percent of GDP on national defense.

In response, the United Kingdom spent 4 percent, France spent 3.6 percent, Germany spent 2.9 percent, and Italy spent 2.3 percent.

Today, Russia spends 5.3 percent of GDP on its military, while our European allies spend far less—with the U.K. spending the most at 2.2 percent, and Italy spending the least at 1.1 percent.

At the Wales Summit Declaration in 2014, NATO member states agreed to “aim to move towards” contributing at least 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending. Other than our staunch ally Great Britain, none of the other key NATO allies appear to be making any serious efforts to reach the 2 percent goal. Widely considered the leader of continental Europe, Germany just signaled it is not even going to make an effort to get there.

Last August, Martin Schulz and Thomas Oppermann, the leaders Germany’s center-left political party SPD, announced their firm opposition to increasing defense spending when they wrote, “We say a clear no to the ‘two-percent target’ of Trump and the CDU/CSU.”

Bowing to their demands on NATO spending, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition no longer commits to meeting the 2 percent goal by 2024, instead stating they will make “an appropriate contribution” to the alliance. Meaning, they’re not even going to try. The problem isn’t money or a bad economy, however.

In its Winter 2018 Economic Forecast, the European Union gleefully reported that growth rates for the EU beat expectations last year “as the transition from economic recovery to expansion continues. The euro area and EU economies are both estimated to have grown by 2.4 percent in 2017, the fastest pace in a decade.”

The growth is expected to continue in 2018 and 2019. With such an optimistic outlook and an allegedly revanchist Russia to the east, why would European powers not expand their defense spending in proportion to their improved economic outlook? Either they do not genuinely believe Russia poses an active threat to them, or they believe that they can keep their own money while the American taxpayers continue to provide their security.

The time has come to have an honest, respectful discussion about America’s commitments and its interests. Plainly stated, European countries have to demonstrate, by meeting the financial obligations they agreed to, that their security is as important to them as it is to the US

The United States is already struggling under the weight of $20 trillion in debt and cannot afford to subsidize the defense of other wealthy nations that have the capacity to contribute to their own defense. In doing so, we would give Europe no choice but to become a stronger member of our alliance. We would be responsibly defending American interests and the financial health of our country.

If Europe genuinely believes Russia poses a major military threat, it is time they prove it with actions—spending more on their own defense— and not with words alone. If they refuse, then we should conclude that the threat is not as high as claimed and begin reducing our contributions to NATO.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

This piece was originally published by Town Hall on February 13, 2018. Read more HERE.