NATO is a threadbare alliance

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 Stats 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’s membership has been unwilling to devote two-percent of their GDP’s towards 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 fifteen 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 towards 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 towards defense, well over the two-percent threshold that NATO recommitted itself to achieving during its last summit.  European members, in contrast, averaged 1.43 percent on its 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 towards 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, 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,” Merkel said.  “The conflicts of this world are currently on Europe’s doorstep, massively so.” 

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.  Merkel’s political rivals will likely go after her and associate her party as 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 towards 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-the-art 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 the Europeans out, 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 Chancellor 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.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Times on October 27, 2016. Read more HERE.