By Jeremy Lott
To become president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker’s name had to be proposed by the European Council and approved by the European Parliament. He is the man who can definitively speak “for Europe,” if any man can. And this mouthpiece of continental interests recently told the American government, in so many words, to take a flying leap.
Some background: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an alliance to promote the common defense of primarily North American and European countries. Most European nations are part of NATO, though countries don’t have to be members of any particular European organization to belong.
What NATO countries must do to join the club is take on certain treaty obligations. These include agreeing to come to the aid of other member countries in the event of an attack (in a manner they deem appropriate) and furnishing a large enough armed force to collectively make good on that threat. As a condition for membership, NATO countries agreed to spend at least 2 percent of their annual Gross Domestic Products on defense.
American Defense Secretary James Mattis recently went to Europe to assure America’s NATO allies that America under President Donald Trump would live up to its end of the bargain. But he wanted something in return. The United States government has grown weary of European nations free- or cheap-riding on our forces, garrisoned on Europe and stretched-thin in too many points around the globe.
Mattis wanted European NATO nations to pay up. He did not ask for them to do this by sending more money into a distant bureaucracy like, say, the European Council. He simply requested that they start spending more money on their own armies and armaments, which they had agreed to but then repeatedly failed to follow through on.
As of 2015, the last year for which numbers are available, only 4 countries other than the United States – Poland, Estonia, the United Kingdom, and Greece – met the minimum.
The defense secretary was speaking on behalf of the Trump administration, but European shirking is not a new concern of the American government. President Barack Obama also complained to the Atlantic magazine that defense “free riders aggravate me.” Obama lamented the tendency of “Europeans and the Arab states” that prefer “holding our coats” while America does “all the fighting.” And he bragged that he had forced the UK’s previous prime minister, David Cameron, to spend more on defense by threatening the “special relationship” between the two countries and frankly telling Cameron, “You have to pay your fair share.”
Other Europeans are less receptive to that message. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last week, President Juncker acknowledged it’s not just the Trump administration that wants European countries to do a better job of sharing the burden. He knows a great number of Americans of both parties share that concern. He just doesn’t care.
“It has been the American message for many, many years. I am very much against letting ourselves be pushed into this,” Juncker said of Mattis’s request, according to Reuters. He pointed out that if Germany increased its defense spending from 1.2 percent of GDP to 2 percent, that would wipe out its budget surplus – leaving it with less money to pay for a welfare state or bail out other flailing EU economies. And Juncker’s own native country of Luxembourg, with only .5 percent of GDP currently going to defense, would be particularly hard squeezed.
Juncker said that he didn’t “like our American friends narrowing down this concept of security to the military” and that if we only “look at what Europe is doing in defense, plus development aid, plus humanitarian aid, the comparison with the United States looks rather different.” For good measure, he insisted, “Modern politics cannot just be about raising defense spending.”
That may sound very high minded, but if nations cannot defend themselves from external threats, ultimately they cannot have a politics. America isn’t pushing NATO countries into anything new. It is simply insisting that those nations live up to the agreements the entire alliance made.
Juncker’s “What, me worry?” view must not prevail. If European NATO partners continue to cheap-ride, they erode the credibility of the entire alliance. Speaking in Brussels, Mattis rightly reminded diplomats, bureaucrats and politicians, “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do.” Here’s hoping future European leaders wake up and take their obligations more seriously than the current shirker-in-chief.
Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on February 27, 2017. Read more HERE.