March 12, 2010 3:47PM

Europe’s Weakness: Feature or Bug?

The question at National Journal's Security Experts blog concerning NATO and the future of Europe has stimulated quite a spirited debate. I decided to take another bite at the apple.

My response:

Gordon Adams objects to the framing of the question, arguing that Europe is more important than ever because European governments have chosen to invest in civilians, not men and women at arms. In this context, Europe's military weakness is a feature, not a bug.

Dan Serwer agrees, saying that the "Europeans are on to something," that their civilian capabilities are vast, that they've been deployed in 22 different operations, and are involved in a dozen currently.

But even if they have such capabilities, all the soft power in the world isn't worth much without some military power to back it up. In many of the places where nation building might be called for, various thugs, murderers and warlords use weapons to steal food aid, intimidate local officials, and kidnap wealthy foreigners. Such situations cry out for hard power: people who pry the weapons from the cold dead hands of the warlords, and convince the warlords' followers to get onboard or else meet a similar fate. The aftermath of this dynamic, played out dozens of times in the past several decades, is what allows the guys in wingtips and the gals in sensible pumps to do development assistance, legal reform, institution building, etc.

In this respect, I agree with Messrs. Killebrew and Carafano. Hard power still matters. Unlike them, however, I would much prefer that locals be responsible for adjudicating these internal disputes, and, failing that, that others beside the U.S. military be capable and willing to deliver that hard power.

Bob Killebrew, the most emphatic defender of NATO as a concept (even if he advocates some reforms at the margins) concludes with three different points:

1. "NATO makes highly unlikely the kinds of European arms races and alliances that led to war so many times in recent history."

In other words, with respect to Gates's contention that Europe's military weakness is a problem (bug), Killebrew still thinks it a good thing (feature).

2. "Without NATO, the Greeks and Turks would have long had their war, and perhaps others as well."

Ummmm, hello? One could argue that NATO prevents small disputes like the 35-plus year Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus from spiraling into a major European war, but that is not what Col. Killebrew wrote (and it would be a very difficult assertion to prove in any case because there are in fact many things to explain the absence of wars between traditional enemies).

3. Killebrew concludes that we are, in fact, subsidizing the defense of other, far more vulnerable, allies, and that we should continue to do so. "With NATO, the Poles and others feel less pressure to prepare for their defense. That can, and should, irritate U.S. policymakers, but it's good for the U.S. in the end."

Jim Carafano appears to reject the argument -- he wants Europe to get serious about military power and "join the real world" -- but he is especially dismissive of the claim that greater restraint by the United States will induce the Europeans to do more. "The less we spend," he writes, "the less they spend."

Evidence please.

To reiterate, the current U.S. posture toward Europe is based on precisely the opposite premise: many of the defenders of the NATO status quo believe that if we were to do less, the Europeans would do more -- and that would be bad.

Our intentions are ultimately irrelevant here. In my previous post, I alluded to the literature showing that even if our policies in Europe were not intended to discourage other NATO members from spending more money on their militaries, they would still be disinclined from doing so simply because it makes sense for each of them to shelter behind the strongest member of the alliance.

One need not sift through dusty economics journals or boring white papers to understand that while we have done more, the Europeans have done less.

  • In 1999, NATO defense expenditures (not counting those of the United States) stood at 2.05 percent of GDP. Today, they spend 1.65 percent. (Table 15, IISS, The Military Balance 2010, p. 110).
  • Over that same time period, U.S. spending as a share of GDP grew from 3.15 percent to 4.88 percent. (Table 2, IISS, The Military Balance 2010, p. 22).

It is possible that if we do less, the Europeans will do less, on the grounds that they don't see much need for military power of any kind. That is Gordon Adams's contention. But if that is true, then why do Americans pay to discourage Europeans from doing what they are not inclined to do in the first place? If you think that European military weakness is a good thing, you shouldn't much care why they're spending less, only that they are. NATO's defenders have an additional burden, however: they think 1) it a good thing that Europe is militarily weak, and 2) that NATO is instrumental to that state of affairs.

I don't. It would be useful for the strongest power in the world to be able to depend upon regional powers to deal with local problems before they become global problems. It would be useful that other countries have both the capacity and the will to act independent of the United States. We have created a world in which they can't and won't.

I don't fault European governments for preferring not to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on military hardware and personnel. I fault past American leaders and strategists (if they can be called that) for thinking it is a good thing that American taxpayers should pay so that others do not, and that our troops should answer every 911 call in the world. And I fault contemporary thinkers for suggesting that this pattern should persist for another 20 years.