With the partial exceptions of Britain and France, the military budgets—to say nothing of crucial spending on force modernization—of the European allies have been in virtual free fall for nearly two decades. The spending and force levels of Germany, Italy, and Spain illustrate the problem. Spain devoted 1.85 percent of its gross domestic product to defense in 1989 and deployed more than 274,000 troops and 244 combat aircraft. By 2008, those figures were down to 0.73 percent of GDP, fewer than 222,000 troops, and 197 aircraft. The plunge in spending and military capabilities for Italy has been equally dramatic. In 1989, Italy spent 1.94 percent of GDP on its military, and the country had nearly 390,000 troops and 425 combat aircraft. In 2008, the figures were 0.96 percent, 293,000 troops, and 266 aircraft.
Berlin’s free fall in military spending and force levels is perhaps the most disheartening. During the cold war, West Germany was the frontline state and a crucial military partner in containing the USSR. Berlin’s military spending in 1989 was 2.27 percent of GDP, and the Bundeswehr had 469,000 active‐duty military personnel and 621 combat aircraft. By 2008, spending had shrunk to 1.19 percent of GDP, and the active‐duty force was down to fewer than 245,000 troops and 310 combat aircraft. Germany’s navy had also shrunk by nearly 50 percent, declining from 208 vessels to 111.
The slippage in Britain and France is also worrisome, although spending levels were higher to begin with and remain at marginally more respectable levels than do those of other NATO allies. Yet, Paris, which devoted a modest 2.98 percent of GDP to the military in 1989 and fielded 461,000 troops and 697 combat aircraft, is now spending only 1.54 percent, while force levels are only 353,000 troops and 351 aircraft. For Britain, the figures in 1989 were 3.98 percent, 306,000 troops and 583 aircraft. In 2008, the figures were 2.33 percent, fewer than 161,000 troops and only 356 aircraft. Even the vaunted British navy had shrunk from 206 vessels to 109. Only four European members meet the meager goal set by alliance leaders to spend at least two percent of GDP on defense. By contrast, U.S. military spending (including the expenditures for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) is nearly 5 percent of GDP.
NATO’s principal European members have gone from countries that somewhat underinvested in defense during the cold war to countries whose defense spending levels now fail to meet even the straight‐face test. It is no wonder that U.S. military leaders no longer consider most of those allies to be credible partners for joint war‐fighting scenarios.
Yet, astonishingly, some American policy experts insist that only by spending even more than the vast sums it already spends on the military will Washington have meaningful influence to get the European countries to increase their paltry efforts. Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, denounces the possibility that the Obama administration might slow the surge in U.S. military spending that has occurred since 9/11. Such a move, he contends,