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Ever since 1949, NATO has served as a bulwark of European security. The alliance, which includes defense heavyweights such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, has been remarkably effective; none of its members have suffered an attack by another state since the alliance’s ratification. The linchpin of the alliance is the mutual defense clause: if one member is attacked, all other member states will fight by its side. Three NATO member states field nuclear weapons and NATO members’ share of the world defense budget is around 70%.
Nevertheless, NATO is far from an ideal alliance. While NATO’s combined force is overwhelming, the capabilities are far from equally distributed. The United States accounts for the vast majority of the alliance’s military power, and spends almost three times as much as the other NATO members combined. As a result, much of NATO’s military power is concentrated in North America, and the European element is relatively weak.
European NATO states have reduced their defense spending since the end of the Cold War, contributing to the current imbalance. They assume that, for a multitude of reasons, American spending on defense will always be exorbitant and thus essentially cover for their declining defense budgets. As a result, European governments can siphon money out of defense and into other funds, such as healthcare and social services, while relying on the United States’s military umbrella. Of course, spending money on social services instead of defense may be an admirable goal. The problem is, as a mutual defense alliance, NATO relies on military participation of all members. If one nation cuts spending and capabilities, others may be obliged to make up the difference, an unfair imposition.
And, recent events illustrate the issues associated with Europe’s neglect of defense. By invading the Ukraine, Putin was playing Europe’s hand. He knew that European militaries are not what they used to be, and that Europe wouldn’t dare stand up to his unlawful adventurism. He is also keenly aware that the United States is in the midst of Middle Eastern entanglements and not keen on another European standoff.
Europe’s defense situation has become such that the United States is essential as a counterweight against Russia, despite the fact that Europe’s GDP far exceeds that of Russia. Inevitably, American taxpayers will end up shelling out for Europe’s defense in the form of increased deployment of troops and equipment in Europe, a backwards state of affairs.
In addition, Europe has failed to contribute significantly to the efforts in Iraq and Syria. The United States, an ocean away, is still doing the heavy lifting in counterterrorism operations. And this failure to remediate the situation has hurt Europe: the influx of refugees from battle-scarred regions in the Middle East has not only created pressures on governments but fuelled the rise of unsavory far-right political groups
The paternal role of the United States in European defense causes this backwards situation. By guaranteeing no-strings-attached intervention on behalf of an assailed member state, NATO was destined to result in piggybacking, as many members have little incentive to maintain their militaries. Plus, the presence of NATO means the few non-NATO European states can rely on overall European security. And, in the end, the American taxpayers end up footing a portion of the bill for the defense of a continent thousands of miles away.
What could be done? Well, membership for all but the smallest and least-developed states could be contingent upon the maintenance of modest defense spending, most likely 2% of GDP, which is the NATO target defense spending (and is far below American commitments). This threshold would ensure that all nations in NATO have an incentive to maintain a competent and modern military which can contribute to collective defense and security. Countries who do not wish to meet that requirement should be dropped from the alliance. While this may sound harsh, the reality is that the affluent and developed European states are more than capable of providing modest allocations for their own defense.
Europe should also bolster its defense spending in order to make meaningful contributions to military stability. Peaceful and prosperous Europe may feel comfortable without large military forces, but the rise of ISIS and Russia’s brinkmanship illustrate how Europe’s stability can be undermined by external military affairs. If Europe wishes to have sway in conflict scenarios, the continent as a whole must make more than a token contribution to military missions. Europe should not have to rely on the United States to provide boots and airstrikes in its own backyard.
But wait, the United States subsidizes defense worldwide. Why should Europe be hung out to dry?
It is important to remember that many American allies are either developing states or are situated in volatile parts of the world. The Philippines and Afghanistan are prime examples. It is understandable that these countries should receive a guarantee of defense from the United States, because they are genuinely unable to field a high-end military and provide for their citizens simultaneously. Europe is different. Its economic development is similar to the United States and most of its constituent nations are well-established, affluent democracies. It is about time they shoulder their share of the burden and accept larger responsibility for regional military affairs.