America’s NATO Liabilities

Washington’s collection of European security dependents (aka, the NATO allies) seek an even stronger U.S. commitment to their defense.  That desire has clearly been on the rise since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent escalation of the Ukraine crisis.  Not surprisingly, Moscow’s smaller neighbors, especially the three Baltic republics, worry about the Kremlin’s intentions and want to take cover behind the shield of America’s military power.  Their latest ploy is to seek the permanent deployment of a NATO brigade (some 3,000 to 5,000 troops) on their territory.  It is a safe bet that they will want U.S. forces to be part of that unit.  Indeed, the United States already keeps more than 150 troops (along with military aircraft) in those countries as part of a continuing rotation of forces.

It is not hard to understand why small, weak nations would seek maximum protection from a distant power against a large, powerful neighbor that has displayed worrisome intentions.  It is much harder to understand, though, why undertaking such a risk would be in the best interest of the United States.  Allies are only beneficial when they augment a nation’s strength, and the potential benefits of defending them significantly outweigh the potential costs and risks. The Baltic republics (and most NATO members, for that matter) spectacularly fail that basic test.  They do next to nothing to augment America’s already vast military power, while (being on bad terms with their powerful neighbor) they create the risk of a U.S.-Russia confrontation where none would otherwise exist.  In short, they are strategic liabilities, not strategic assets. 

Making matters even worse, the Baltic countries and the other European members of NATO don’t seem terribly serious about their own defense, even as they sound alarm bells about Russia’s behavior.  As I note in a new article in Aspenia Online, their defense spending continues to be woeful.  Despite a commitment following the 2006 NATO summit, only the United States, Britain, Greece, and Estonia currently spend at least two percent of annual GDP on defense.  What is especially frustrating is that several major NATO powers, including Germany, Italy, and Spain, have spending levels far below the two percent target.  By comparison, just the U.S. base military budget is more than four percent of a much larger GDP, and if overseas contingency spending for supposed emergency missions (like the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) is included, Washington’s defense outlays reach nearly five percent. 

In March, Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, flew to Brussels to encourage the leaders of NATO countries to fulfill their two percent commitment.  She warned that “the number of missions that require advanced militaries to contribute around the world is growing, not shrinking.”  In a subsequent interview on BBC Radio 4, Power conceded that “in most cases” not only was European defense spending inadequate, it was shrinking, despite the growth in security threats.

The contrast in U.S. and European efforts is especially striking.  U.S. military spending nearly doubled during the decade following the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, the outlays of NATO’s European members continued the downward trajectory that existed since the end of the Cold War.  Indeed, the onset of the global Great Recession in 2007-2008 led to even sharper reductions in European defense efforts.

Even in Eastern Europe, supposedly so worried about Russian intentions, the tangible military response has been meager.  Poland announced with great fanfare in February that it had earmarked 33.3 billion euros to upgrade its military forces.  But the fine print in the announcement confirmed that the figure was a spending increase parceled out over the coming decade.  Moreover, even if future governments maintain that course, it would only bring Warsaw’s defense budget up to the two percent level that it promised to achieve following the 2006 summit—some nine years ago. 

Likewise, the fanfare greatly exceeded the substance accompanying Lithuania’s announcement that it was increasing its military spending by nearly fifty percent.  That change, if actually implemented, would bring the country’s military budget barely up to one percent of GDP—still far below the long-standing, very modest, two percent pledge.

U.S. leaders need to face the reality that the United States has weak security dependents, not worthwhile military allies, in NATO.  It was a colossal mistake even to bring such nations into the alliance.  It would be even greater folly to deepen our existing entanglement.  Instead, we need to jettison such unwise commitments before a crisis erupts.