America would be richer and safer if Europe paid for its own defense

By Bonnie Kristian, March 31, 2016

At the South Carolina Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio rattled off a list of the three top threats he’d want to address as president.

First: North Korea. Second: ISIS. “And the third is rebuilding and reinvigorating NATO in the European theater,” he said, “particularly in Central Europe and in Eastern Europe” as a counterbalance to Russian power.

The moderator didn’t allow any of Rubio’s competitors to respond to this trio, but had he been permitted to speak, Donald Trump may well have raised an objection to that third point. “Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually,” he recently said. “The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.”

Trump is hardly a foreign policy maven—ricocheting as he does between calls for restraint and open planning of war crimes—but on this point he gets it right: What Rubio is advocating is not so much defense as it is expanded subsidy of the European welfare state.

Indeed, NATO’s European wing is notorious for its freeloading on American military might, a longstanding habit of bilking U.S. taxpayers for defense while throwing good money after bad on expansive social engineering projects.

Just how much NATO Europe is mooching off the U.S. is evident with just a quick glance at the numbers. Per capita, the United States drops close to $2,000 annually on the military. NATO Europe averages less than $500—with one country, Bulgaria, as low as $89.

The contrast is so significant that it actually sees our European friends in breach of the terms of our alliance: They spent less than 1.5 percent of GDP on defense last year, despite NATO’s requirement of a 2 percent minimum. (America, by contrast, devotes an aggressive 4 to 5 percent of GDP to military spending.)

Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Europe has built elaborate domestic income-maintenance programs, with government-run health care, pensions and jobless benefits. These are hugely expensive, requiring high taxes and government spending that is a huge proportion of GDP.”

All of this is possible because, in the words of one Slovakian party leader, “we enjoy protection primarily from NATO”—which is to say, we let American taxpayers pick up the tab.

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Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing writer at The Week and columnist for Rare.

Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore.