Washington’s Inflated Sense of Security Leadership

With the Ukrainian crisis continuing to simmer, criticism of the Obama administration’s response is growing. One common refrain is that the administration has squandered its leadership role, not only in Europe, but globally. Calls are mounting for the United States to inspire and cajole its NATO allies to support a hard-line policy toward Russia. Representative Peter King (R-NY), speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, stated that Washington needs to make clear not only that “there will be firm sanctions,” but we “have to make sure the allies are working together.”

Such calls reflect wishful thinking rather than sober analysis. Although the European countries (especially those in Eastern Europe) are nervous and unhappy about the Kremlin’s decision to send troops into Ukraine’s Crimea region, the principal European powers (Germany, Italy, France and Britain) show few signs of wanting a confrontation with Moscow. Indeed, their criticisms of Putin’s military intervention have been slower to materialize and remain milder than those expressed by U.S. officials. That is not coincidental. The United States has scant economic ties with Russia; barely two percent of America’s foreign trade is with that country, and U.S. investment there is similarly modest. Imposing sanctions and risking Moscow’s retaliation would have little impact on America’s fortunes.

But Washington’s European allies have far more substantial—and vulnerable—ties. Germany, for example, gets nearly 40 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia, and that country is also a significant arena for German investment. Unsurprisingly, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been relatively circumspect in her criticism of the Kremlin’s conduct in the Ukraine crisis. She is unlikely to accord calls for NATO solidarity greater importance than the need to keep German homes warm and business operating in the cold winter months.

Washington’s leadership clout within NATO has long been exaggerated. As I note in a recent article over at National Interest Online, U.S. officials have never been able even to get the European allies to spend credible amounts on their own defenses. Burden-sharing complaints go back to the earliest months of the alliance in 1949, and have surfaced repeatedly since then. In 2006, George W. Bush’s administration extracted a promise that all members would spend at least two percent of their gross domestic product on the military. (That was a very modest target; the United States spends nearly 4 ½ percent.) Today, the vast majority of members, including such leading countries as Germany, Italy and Spain, fail to fulfill their commitment. Even Britain and France have fallen perilously close to that spending floor.

Shortly before the onset of the Ukraine crisis, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel admonished his NATO colleagues that the current downward spiral in European defense budgets “is not sustainable.” Rebalancing NATO’s “burden-sharing and capabilities,” he stressed “is mandatory, not elective.” But his call for a more serious effort on the part of the European allies will probably fare no better than previous ones. Even Russia’s jarring actions in Ukraine are unlikely to dislodge the NATO countries from their fondness for free-riding on the security exertions of the United States. The Baltic republics and other nations directly on Russia’s border have made some comments about the need to increase their military spending, but only time will tell whether they turn out to be more than yet another episode of empty talk. And the major Western European powers show few signs of altering their policies or budgets.

Indeed, even the vulnerable Eastern European countries are spending more energy trying to get the United States to enhance its military commitment to the region than they are on boosting their own defenses. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, for example, warns that “Russia is a threat to the whole of Europe, and Europe must understand what it is dealing with.” However, just a few years ago, she led efforts to cut Lithuania’s already meager defense budget. Today, the country spends barely 0.8 percent of GDP on defense.

Invocations of U.S. leadership cannot get alliance partners to adopt measures they do not wish to pay for or assume risks that they want to avoid. Anyone believing that the United States will lead a grand alliance parade to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine will soon find that this country is marching alone.