NATO always stood for North America and the Others. During the Cold War the allied states shamelessly took a very cheap ride on the U.S. That made sense in the immediate aftermath of World War II, but by the 1960s Europe had recovered and should have spent amounts commensurate with the Soviet threat. However, Europeans correctly gauged that Washington wouldn’t leave, despite periodically upbraiding them for their meager efforts.
Cato Institute forum on future of NATO
The problem has gotten worse in recent years. The U.S. accounts for three‐quarters of NATO outlays even though Europe has a larger GDP than America. Because of European cutbacks, overall outlays are down 1.5 percent this year.
Of 28 members only the U.S., Britain, and Greece—mostly because of its confrontation with fellow alliance member Turkey—typically broke the officially recommended level of two percent of GDP. Estonia has become a member of that exclusive club, but not Latvia and Lithuania, despite being on the front line. After frenetically demanding that the U.S. do more, Poland only hit that mark this year. But several members have been cutting outlays, despite the continent’s embarrassing showing against Libya (running out of missiles, for instance) and limited capacity to aid the Baltics (little more than nil) let alone defend a nation like Ukraine.
Of the five largest European defense budgets, only France’s will increase. Those of Canada, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy will continue to decline. None of these countries will hit the recommended two percent of GDP level in 2015. Only Britain and France exceed 1.5 percent. Canada barely makes one percent. (At the G-7 Summit President Barack Obama essentially begged the British to spend more; London has responded by considering whether reclassifying intelligence and foreign aid outlays as “military” would allow Britain to technically meet the standard.) Those NATO members spending more this year—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Netherlands, Norway, and Romania—collectively have outlays only half that of Britain.
Cooperation is poor even among those most at risk. Add Poland to the three Baltic and five Nordic states and the group enjoys a GDP about a third larger than that of Russia. However, their military outlays are only about 40 percent of Moscow’s. Moreover, complains Edward Lucas of the Center for European Policy Analysis, they “are divided” and suffer from “strategic incoherence.”
Never mind the events of the last year. Ukraine has not served as Thomas Jefferson’s famed “fire bell in the night,” despite the supposedly terrible threat posed to the peace and stability of Europe. “It is much more business as usual,” said British defense analyst Ian Kearns. As of 2013 the Europeans devoted just 3.6 percent of their governments’ budgets to the military, compared to a fifth of U.S. government spending. America’s per capita military outlays are five times that of the alliance’s Cold War members and eight times that of those states which joined later. “Total military spending by NATO’s European members was less in real terms in 2014 than in 1997—and there are 12 more member states in NATO today,” observed my Cato Institute colleague Chris Preble.
The issue is more than just money. From the onset of the crisis with Russia a number of American analysts have proposed deploying U.S. forces to Ukraine, treating the latter as if it was a NATO ally. No Europeans have volunteered to follow. The U.S. House has approved legislation to arm Kiev’s forces, and a similar measure is being pushed by ever warlike Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. Most European governments have resisted the idea.
“Make no mistake: we will defend our allies,” declared Carter. But will the Europeans defend anyone, even themselves? A new poll suggests not. The Pew Foundation recently surveyed eight leading NATO countries: If Russia got into a conflict with another member of NATO, should your country use military force in the victim’s defense? A majority of French, Germans, and Italians said no. (The Germans were particularly emphatic, with 58 percent rejecting war. German support for NATO has dropped by 18 percent in just six years.) Only pluralities said yes in Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. (Yet Poland is insisting that everyone else defend it!) The highest European support level was in Britain, at 49 percent. Only in America, naturally, and Canada did a majority say yes (56 and 53 percent, respectively).
Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, said “it will take a serious effort by the alliance to convince its public of the need to prepare for, deter and, if necessary, respond to a Russian attack.” Yet why should they take action as long as they believe they can count on Washington to save them? According to Pew, two‐thirds of Europeans were convinced the Americans would come rushing over to do what they would not do for themselves.
It’s time to change that. Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe asked why Washington allowed itself to be used in this way: “Europe is prosperous. It should be confident enough both to take care of its own security and to contribute to a greater role in burden sharing.” It will not do so as long as U.S. policymakers insist that Americans do the job instead.
The Cold War is over. Moscow is an unpleasant regional actor, not a global threat. Europe has a much larger GDP and population than Russia and even with its current anemic level of military outlays devotes more to defense. The U.S. government is essentially bankrupt, with far greater unfunded liabilities than the Europeans, despite Greece’s travails.
Instead of pouring more resources into NATO, Washington should be disengaging militarily, turning leadership of the alliance and responsibility for defending the continent over to Europe. Americans shouldn’t be expected to protect their rich cousins even if the latter were devoted to protecting each other. That the Europeans expect the U.S. to do their job is yet another reason for Americans to say no more.