Obama’s Reassurances to Europeans Should Dishearten Americans

President Obama is in Poland today, a visit that coincides with the 25th anniversary of that country’s liberation from communism. His four-day European tour will include a D-Day remembrance, meetings with G-7 leaders, and a possible encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in France, all while the crisis in Ukraine rages on.

Moments after stepping off Air Force One in Warsaw, with F-16s as a backdrop, the president sought to reassure our European allies, stating that America’s commitment to their security was “a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct.” He detailed the increased support America has provided, including a larger presence in the region, and later announced that he would ask Congress to fund a “European reassurance initiative” to the tune of $1 billion.

This is exactly the wrong approach. American taxpayers have been subsidizing the defense of European allies for too long. And they have reacted as one would expect—by spending less.

In fact, only three NATO countries – Estonia, Greece, and the United Kingdom – spent the NATO-mandated 2 percent of GDP on their defense in 2013, and even those three barely met the threshold. That is compared to the United States, which spent 3.7 percent of its GDP on defense, a figure that excludes national security spending in the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

As this chart prepared by my colleague Travis Evans shows, U.S. spending has risen and fallen over the past 13 years, but spending by NATO countries has consistently declined. And Americans still spend more than in 2002, both as a share of GDP, and in real, inflation-adjusted dollars.

US and NATO

In his speech last week at West Point, President Obama correctly called on U.S. allies to spend more on their own defense. He had done the same thing in March. Bob Gates made headlines in one of his last speeches as Secretary of Defense when he scolded NATO allies for their inadequate defense spending. Such exhortations have consistently failed, and I predicted last week that the president’s latest approach to getting the allies to share more of the burdens would also fail.

I elaborated on why yesterday at War on the Rocks:

Our allies are unlikely to pick up the slack unless the United States pulls back on its promises to defend others from harm, and reshapes its military accordingly.

This has been clear since at least the mid-1960s, when Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser first articulated an economic theory of alliances. Because there is a general tendency for smaller nations to free ride on the security assurances of larger ones, Olson and Zeckhauser predicted that “American attempts to persuade her allies to bear larger shares of the common burden are apt to do nothing more than breed division and resentment.”

MIT’s Barry Posen states the bottom line succinctly in his new book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy. America’s allies, Posen writes:

Make their defense decisions in the face of extravagant United States promises to defend them. They will not do more unless the United States credibly commits to doing less.

Conversely, Obama’s pledges of more U.S. troops and more U.S. money will discourage the Europeans from doing more. Indeed, the president’s actions in Poland belie his burden-sharing rhetoric at home, and should be deeply disheartening to the people who elected him. Americans want genuine burden sharing, but they are likely to get only the phony kind favored in Washington.