By Daniel DePetris
“[I]f current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
This bombshell warning from a senior official didn’t come from Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, or some other right-wing European populist, but from former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. And it came at a time, in 2011, when NATO defense budgets were declining due to the combination of austerity measures, calamity in the capital markets, and inaccurate assessments of a peace dividend in Europe that would last a lifetime.
When President Donald Trump makes his first visit to Brussels today to commiserate with European heads of state, you can be sure that the unpredictable and loose-lipped president will do something that is entirely predictable—lecture his European counterparts about the absolute imperative of dragging their defense budgets out of the gutter, arresting the decline, and reinvesting more national resources in their countries’ military capabilities.
Trump’s visit to the brand new $1.2 billion NATO headquarters is designed to illustrate to the new American Commander-in-Chief that the transatlantic alliance is more than a commitment for Europe’s common defense. It’s also about common values. And yet despite these admonitions, the alliance is essentially rudderless—a hammer in search of a nail. This should be anything but surprising. NATO was created in 1949 with the preservation of Western European democracies and the containment of the Soviet Union first on its mind. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse and its replacement with a Russia that is far weaker economically and militarily than many believe, the NATO mission has transformed from a mechanism to defend Europe into trainers and advisers in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
European heads-of-state are understandably reluctant to predict how their meetings with Trump will go. Like the foreign policy establishment in Washington, the political establishment in Europe finds the 45th president a little too much to handle. He’s brash, he’s volatile, he changes his beliefs seemingly at a moment’s notice, and at times he doesn’t appear to comprehend how fundamental Article 5 is to the North Atlantic Treaty or how NATO’s finances work.
From the European perspective, Trump's comments about NATO being obsolete or a mechanism of the past, conjures up a nightmare of the United States lowering Europe on its list of priorities. President Trump could smooth the edges of his message when he talks about the issue with his European counterparts over the next several days.
The ironic thing, however, is that while his message may rub a lot of European politicians the wrong way, the core of his message is right on the mark.
Trump’s calls for Europe to increase their military budgets and take more responsibility for the defense of continental Europe against threats both internal and external isn’t a new concept plucked out of thin air. Far from it—America complaining about the lopsided defense burden between the United States and everybody else has been a position carried by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had the same gripes as Trump, albeit they expressed them in less jarring ways.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that Trump shouldn’t drill home the inviolability of burden sharing and collective responsibility into the skulls of America’s European allies. A defense alliance, after all, is only as good as the military capabilities that all of its participants bring to bear.
While a majority of Americans support NATO as an institution, the American people also want U.S. partners to step into the breach and implement the promises that all NATO member states have made. Countries like Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain aren’t poor, third-world economies but rich countries in the top tier of the developed world. The European Union is the most wealthy bloc of counties in the entire globe, so other than a lack of political will, there is no reason why Europe can’t chip away at the two percent GDP benchmark that they indeed signed up to. Meeting that guideline isn’t just about fulfilling a commitment, but also about beginning the transformation of a military partnership that has been far too dependent on the backs of the U.S. military. The more states contribute financially to NATO, the more durable and interconnected NATO will be as an organization.
In his meetings, President Trump must lobby for deliverables rather than mere statements of support on alliance solidarity or summit declarations that will be thrown into the wastebasket after everybody forgets about them in a few months time.
All of NATO’s members, for instance, should agree to submit public reports at the end of each year—without exception—outlining the trends in their military spending for the current year, the change from the previous year, how that money is being spent (equipment or personnel?), and how many active-duty soldiers each country has deployed to assist NATO missions around the world. If this sounds like an audit or a report card, that’s because it is: public reporting keeps all NATO members honest, and it introduces some accountability over the two percent of GDP metric that the alliance has established as a guideline since 2006. Benchmarks or guidelines are meaningless if the countries making them don’t adhere to the terms.
Agreeing on an arrangement that provides the European and American publics with the information they need to figure out which country is holding to or working towards their spending commitments and which are not would be a win for President Trump. Indeed, it would serve as a small but critical change, one that will send a signal to all NATO members that their progress will be will be monitored by the high-command in Brussels. Don’t underestimate the power of naming and shaming.
In the end, NATO remains the most successful military alliance in modern history. The fact that it’s lasted for 68 years is an accomplishment in and of itself. NATO has the potential to last for another 68 years if all of its members, from the smallest country in the Balkans to the mighty United States, keep the promises that they themselves made over a decade ago. If NATO members can’t or won’t do that, it’s difficult to see how NATO’s adversaries will take the alliance seriously on anything else.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on May 25, 2017. Read more HERE.