Euros Need to Ante Up

By Charles V. Peña

The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, believes the European Union (EU) needs a military headquarters to work towards a common military force. This idea was originally proposed in late April 2003 – just after the fall of Baghdad – by four of EU’s founding countries. Two of those countries were France and Germany, both who opposed the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. They argued that, despite being members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Europe needed its own defense capacity to avoid being dragged into America’s wars. Because of U.S. and British opposition, the project went nowhere.

Now, in the wake of Brexit, the idea of a joint European military headquarters is back.

Although a headquarters is a far cry from a full-fledged military, Juncker says that a European common military force “should be in complement to NATO.”  But the idea of the EU being interested in eventually building a common military force begs the question of: Why can’t the Europeans shoulder their share of defense spending for NATO? The short answer is: They can, but don’t (or won’t).

In 2006 at its Riga summit, NATO established a guideline that member states should spend at least two percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. NATO leaders re-affirmed their commitment to the two percent mark at a NATO summit last September in Wales. But as of 2015, only five of the 28 countries in the alliance – the U.S., Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Poland – met the target.  Ironically, the four countries that originally proposed the idea of a European military headquarters fell short. France contributed 1.78 percent, Germany contributed 1.19 percent, and both Belgium and Luxembourg gave less than one percent.

To provide some perspective: the U.S. spent some $650 billion on defense in 2015. That’s more than double what all the other 27 NATO countries spent.

There’s absolutely no reason the Europeans can’t meet their defense spending obligations. In fact, the European economy is nearly as big as the U.S., which had a GDP of $17.9 trillion in 2015. So the Euros can’t claim that they don’t have the money to pay for their fair share on defense – they just choose not to.

When NATO was first established, Europe was still reeling from the devastation of World War II and needed U.S. aid for economic recovery, so it was natural that U.S. would shoulder the lion’s share of the burden for NATO. However, the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991 – more than two decades ago. Many of the former Communist Eastern Bloc countries are now part of the EU and NATO. Indeed, Germany is the largest economy in Europe and the fourth largest in the world (€3 trillion or $3.3 billion). The American taxpayer no longer needs to subsidize defense spending of wealthy allies – which really means subsidizing their spending on social programs.

Indeed, given that NATO’s European countries spend roughly $250 billion on defense and Russia spends $66 billion (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), it’s not even clear how Russia constitutes a credible threat to Europe. One of the reasons for this disconnect is because NATO has wandered from its original mission, which was collective defense against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. But according to a new strategic concept adopted in 2010, collective defense includes “at strategic distance,” so its reach includes “crises and conflicts beyond NATO borders” that require “expeditionary operations.” The NATO website highlights that “approximately 18,000 military personnel are engaged in NATO missions around the world.” Indeed, NATO has aspirations for “the maintenance of international peace and security.” And beyond a military alliance for collective defense, NATO is now a crisis management organization. In other words, mission creep of the largest magnitude.

European security is still important to America, but a NATO that goes in search of dragons to slay is not in America’s security interest. Leave the dragons for the EU not NATO. In today’s post-Cold War world, the primary reason for the U.S. to be a part of NATO is to provide reassurance to our European allies for their security against direct military threats – such as they are … or aren’t. But given the wealth of Europe, it’s not the United States’ responsibility to pick up the tab. Europe needs to ante up and bear the primary burden for defending Europe, while the U.S. can provide surge capability if needed. Once they live up to their NATO commitment to defend Europe, then the Europeans can decide what dragons to slay elsewhere.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with the Defense Priorities Foundation. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on October 5, 2016. Read more HERE