Alan Tonelson, a former associate editor with Foreign Policy, aptly identified the inherent futility of Washington’s burden‐sharing approach.
U.S. leaders never gave the Europeans sufficient incentive to assume greater relative military responsibilities. The incentive was lacking, in turn, because Washington never believed it could afford to walk away from NATO or even reduce its role, if the allies stood firm. Worse, U.S. leaders repeatedly telegraphed that message to the Europeans—often in the midst of burden‐sharing controversies.
There have been intriguing hints that the Trump administration might be more serious than its predecessors about pushing the allies for greater defense outlays. During the campaign, Trump himself stated that the United States must be willing to let the Europeans defend themselves if they remained unresponsive, although he emphasized that he did not prefer that option. This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that he did not plan to attend the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in April. Such an apparent snub sent shock waves through the NATO community, since it seemed to convey a message that NATO was not an especially important issue on Washington’s foreign‐policy agenda. That implication was strengthened because Tillerson planned instead to visit Russia at that time and also focus on preparations for a summit meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
However, the Trump administration, like its predecessors, seems determined to undermine its own burden‐sharing campaign. Tillerson is already beating a hasty retreat, indicating that he might be able to reschedule the trip to Russia and attend the NATO conclave after all. Both Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis had previously muddied their burden‐sharing message at the February Munich security conference by simultaneously stressing the alliance’s critical importance to the United States and Washington’s undying devotion to transatlantic solidarity.
It was one thing to argue that NATO was essential to America’s own security during the Cold War—especially the first decade or so of that long struggle—but Europe’s security environment has changed beyond recognition. Today, most of Washington’s concerns about possible threats are located well outside the European theater. Moreover, the European powers are prosperous and should be capable of managing their own security and the overall stability of their region. Equating Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a declining regional power with an economy the size of Spain’s, to the threat that the Soviet Union and its satellite empire once posed to a demoralized Europe still recovering from World War II’s devastation, strains credulity to the breaking point.
Indeed, there is an inherent contradiction between the tendency of NATO’s European members to hype the “Russian threat,” and the defense efforts they are willing to put forth. Germany, democratic Europe’s economic and political leader, spends a pathetic 1.2 percent of GDP on defense. Even NATO’s easternmost members, those countries that would be on the frontlines of a conflict with Russia, don’t do much better. Although Estonia and Poland barely meet the 2 percent threshold (the latter for the first time last year), the other countries lag far behind. Latvia spends 1.45 percent; Lithuania, 1.49 percent; Romania, 1.48 percent; Bulgaria, 1.35 percent; Slovakia, 1.16 percent; and Hungary, 1.01 percent.
Moreover, even those countries that meet the minimum budgetary target don’t necessarily spend the money effectively. Italy, the Netherlands, and some other members appear to use defense budget funds more as a jobs program for otherwise unemployed youth than as a coherent program to build a credible fighting force.
There are reasons, other than the lack of meaningful burden sharing, for why the United States should phase out its commitment to NATO. Adding an assortment of militarily insignificant client states, as the alliance is doing most recently with Montenegro, does not enhance America’s power or security. Worse, attempting to protect vulnerable client states that are on poor terms with larger neighbors, as the United States did by approving membership for the three tiny Baltic republics, actually endangers—rather than enhances—America’s security.
But the cynical free riding and lack of burden sharing on the part of the NATO allies is a sufficient reason by itself to change Washington’s policy. President Trump should follow through on his warning and finally let the European nations begin to defend themselves.