Commentary

Shirking Its Duty

A second marriage, it is said, is the triumph of hope over experience. So is a European Union debate over defense. It is Kabuki theater, an enthralling show without practical impact. The Europeans recently issued new promises to do more than free ride on the U.S. However, if they really want to make a difference, they must devote real resources to their militaries and to take real risks in deploying their forces — which no one expects.

In late December European leaders assembled in Brussels for the latest European Council meeting. (Don’t worry if you’re confused: there’s also a commission and parliament; they all do very important things, even though it’s hard to figure out what!) It was the first Council meeting in eight years focused on defense since the Europeans have no one to defend against. It’s been five years since the body offered more than a pro forma mention of the issue.

The continent is made up of frustrated wannabe global powers. However, only France and Great Britain possess both the resources and desire to affect world events. Germany has the former, but remains burdened by history. Italy is reasonably wealthy, but the last time the Italians successfully married economic and military strength was the Roman Empire.

The Europeans proved to be mostly feckless even during the Cold War with the Red Army poised in the east. Rather than build up their own forces, they preferred to rely on America. European governments would routinely promise to spend more, and then welsh on their commitments. After all, they knew Uncle Sam would take up the slack.

Since the end of the Cold War it’s gotten far worse. It was hard enough to get the Europeans to divert cash from their generous welfare states when there was a plausible enemy. But today? The Soviet Union is gone, replaced by the unpleasant but much weaker and less ambitious Russian Republic. The Warsaw Pact is gone and its members have joined NATO.

Europe still wants U.S. to be its military.”

Since then the transatlantic alliance’s desperate search for new enemies has led to the Bosnian Serbs, Serbia, the Taliban, and Libya. Britain and France unsuccessfully attempted to add the Syrians, and Paris wandered off unilaterally to fight in Mali and the Central African Republic. But it’s hard to convince people that they shouldn’t plan on retiring at 50 (or is it 40 — it is hard to keep track of the latest European standard!) so they can bring order, peace, and stability to yet another distant country that no one knows or cares about, and which is likely to collapse the moment foreign troops withdraw.

Indeed, the financial crisis, enduring recession, and Eurozone imbroglio have sapped what little interest most Europeans had in maintaining real militaries. Observed Adrian Croft of Reuters: “Austerity-hit EU countries have slashed spending in response to the financial crisis, scaling back on ships, tanks and fighter jets and undermining Europe’s military strength.” Earlier this year a top NATO official admitted at a private luncheon that “there is no chance for budget increases, not even for keeping spending levels as they are.”

The result has been embarrassment when the Europeans go to war. The world’s once greatest aggregation of military strength and still greatest aggregation of economic strength ran out of missiles when fighting the grand legions of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi; Washington had to fill in the gap. France’s Little Napoleon, Francois Hollande, found that his military lacked sufficient air “lift” to get his forces to Mali last year and had to turn to the U.S. Yet this didn’t stop London and Paris from beating the war drums for Syria — undoubtedly expecting America to do the heavy lifting, as usual.

Despite their usual political posturing and abundant hypocrisy, European leaders aren’t stupid. They recognize there is a problem in plotting new wars without possessing effective militaries. So they have been issuing calls for better if not more spending — in fact, “smart defense” has become something of a NATO mantra, even though “NATO” still stands for “North America and The Others.” But it doesn’t matter how smart you spend if you don’t spend much.

The latest Council meeting delivered what we have come to expect from the European Union: expansive talk, wonderful pronouncements, grandiose promises, and minimal expectations. Europe will grow only more dependent on America — at least if Americans allow it.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, only Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain fall within world’s top 20 military spenders. Even that sounds more impressive than it really is. London spends 8.9 percent of what Washington does on the military. Paris is 8.6 percent. Berlin is 6.7 percent. Rome is 4.9 percent. Madrid is 1.7 percent. The Europeans badly lag on other measures, such as percent of GDP and per capita outlays.

Even the Central and Eastern Europeans, who claim to worry about Russia, are laggards. Poland, Finland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Hungary fall in at numbers 23, 47, 58, 59, and 68, respectively. Russian neighbors Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia come in at 82, 88, and 95. Many of these nations have relatively small economies, but none is putting in much effort. The latter three devote just 1.4 percent, 2.3 percent, and 1.4 percent, respectively, of their GDPs to the military, much less than America’s more than four percent. Even Poland, which makes much of its willingness to go against the European grain on defense, devotes less than two percent of its GDP to defense.

Whatever their rhetoric, these countries either don’t feel threatened or don’t want to be bothered to create even a minimal deterrent capability. They all prefer that NATO, meaning America, prepare for a war that would be disastrous and serve no conceivable U.S. interest.

The European Council admitted as much in its discussion of the Common Security and Defense Policy. “Defense matters,” the Council began. These two words were, declared Andrew Gardner of European Voice, “a declaration intended to send a message of commitment to Europe’s partners in NATO, to reassure a defense community that feels its problems have been neglected, and shake the European public out of complacency about Europe’s security.”

Wow! No doubt one day this short statement will take its historical place alongside Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” declaration in Berlin. However, the Council added: “Defense budgets in Europe are constrained, limiting the ability to develop, deploy and sustain military capabilities.” Thus, being effective “requires having the necessary means and maintaining a sufficient level of investment.”

Right.

In fact, the Council went on to acknowledge the obvious, that no additional funds would be forthcoming. The only surprise may be that most European countries want to maintain the pretense of possessing militaries. Observed Christian Moelling with the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik: “At a time of significant financial hardship, some… might even begin to question the merit of having armed forces at all.”

Instead of urging more outlays, the Council called “on the Member States to deepen defense cooperation by improving the capability to conduct missions and operations and by making full use of synergies in order to improve the development and availability of the required civilian and military capabilities, supported by a more integrated, sustainable, innovative and competitive European Defense Technological and Industrial Base.” The only thing missing was a discussion of the role of “new paradigms.”

The Council did call for “Increasing the effectiveness, visibility and impact of CSDP,” “Enhancing the development of capabilities,” and “Strengthening Europe’s defense industry.” That’s all very nice. But what does it mean if even the continent’s “big” powers, Britain and France, are shrinking their militaries? Gen. Nick Houghton, head of the British chief of staff, warned that his nation’s armed forces could become a “hollow force” and explained that “We have to recalibrate our expectations of the level of capabilities we can field on new operations.” In time all of the largest states could end up with what Moelling calls “bonsai armies” rather than armies shouting “Banzai.”

Indeed, the Council members indicated they weren’t very serious even as they approved the latest communiqué. First, Great Britain was determined to keep Europe dependent on America through NATO. Prime Minister David Cameron was particularly insistent that CSDP not actually amount to anything. He explained: “It isn’t right for the European Union to have capabilities, armies, air forces and the rest of it. And we need to keep that demarcation correct between cooperation, which is right, and EU capabilities, which is wrong.”

That is, Europe and America must keep their responsibilities straight. America is to do the defending. Europe’s responsibility is to be defended. While doing just enough to keep the U.S. involved.

France discovered how minimal is the commitment of its fellow EU members to doing much of anything. Paris has maintained troops in Mali to deal with resurgent jihadists and deployed 1600 troops to the Central African Republic to halt a violent spiral there. French President Hollande, though a lavish big spender at home, doesn’t like having to pay to play Afrique-Cop.

But his hopes for European contributions fell flat. Council (and nominal European Union) President Herman Van Rompuy lauded Paris for having “courageously taken the lead in a serious crisis,” but no money was forthcoming. The other governments explicitly refused to help pay for an individual country’s military operation. And the Council rejected Paris’ proposal to deem the mission an EU operation. France did, however, win a Council call for a report on how the EU could address the “challenges and opportunities arising for the Union.” The Council also invited “the Member States, the High Representative and the Commission to ensure the greatest possible coherence between the Union’s and Member States’ actions.”

No doubt, great results should be expected!

Europe will almost certainly continue its downward military descent. In early 2013, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared that “There is a lower limit on how little we can spend on defense.” However, what is it?

The Europeans are only doing what comes naturally. They face no serious enemies. Vladimir Putin is an unpleasant authoritarian, but he is no Joseph Stalin or even Leonid Brezhnev. Russia is a deeply conservative potential adversary, concerned about border security and international respect, not advancing any utopian ideology. Moscow might beat up on neighboring Georgia — which long was part of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union — over border issues, but a Russian attack on Warsaw, Berlin, or Paris is a paranoid fantasy. Most European nations require no more than a few gaudily garbed ceremonial soldiers to strut in front of palaces and parliaments.

Moreover, the Europeans don’t believe they have to do anything, other than the bare minimum necessary to quiet U.S. complaints and forestall U.S. reaction. Their only fear is that Washington might eventually tire of playing GloboCop for countries that prefer to devote their resources to economic development and social welfare.

America should celebrate Europe’s relative security. The former has enjoyed near geographic invulnerability almost since its founding. It is wonderful that Europe now has the same. And as much as Washington might want the Europeans to follow the U.S. over geopolitical cliffs elsewhere — into Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance — the Europeans have no compelling reason to make America’s folly their own.

However, Washington should start saying no to European dependency. If they want to go to war somewhere for some reason, they should be free to do so — with their own forces. It isn’t America’s job to fight the wars, provide the missiles, or airlift the forces. Serious Europeans realize that their free, or at least very cheap, ride is coming to an end. NATO’s Rasmussen opined: “We need to recommit to security, otherwise we risk seeing the USA disengage and drift apart from Europe, it will not benefit the EU and it will not benefit the world.”

But it would benefit America. And, that, ultimately, should be Washington’s standard. How to most effectively and inexpensively defend the U.S. — its people, territory, liberty, and prosperity. Safeguarding the European welfare state should not be the U.S. government’s objective.

Give the Europeans their due. They love to perform. “We must do more on defense,” they all say. Then they will go home and reduce military outlays.

We’ve seen the show before. And we’re about to see a rerun.

This time Americans should respond differently. Rasmussen argued that “The need for a strong military alliance between Europe and North America has never been stronger.” That is nonsense, nonsense upon stilts, to borrow from Jeremy Bentham. Neither continent faces a serious, let alone existential, military threat.

Washington should formally turn responsibility for Europe’s defense over to Europe and bring America’s troops home. NATO could be ceded to the Europeans, to serve as a framework for continental action to advance European interests and informal transatlantic cooperation when U.S.-European military interests coincide.

The Cold War is over. It’s time to dismantle the Cold War alliance and treaty structure. And for America to invite Europe to take up its proper military responsibilities in a new and changing world.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.