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.