The election had barely been called for Donald Trump when he came under pressure to back away from his most important promises. For instance, he questioned U.S. subsidies for the defense of prosperous, populous Europe and criticized NATO as “obsolete.” But after President Barack Obama met with Trump, the former assured Europeans of the president-elect’s “commitment to NATO and the transatlantic alliance.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently spoke to Trump, claiming that the latter agreed to the alliance’s continuing value.
President–elect Donald Trump has yet to comment. But he had it right during the campaign.
NATO is one of Washington’s most expensive yet beloved sacred cows. On his recent trip to Europe President Obama argued that such alliances as NATO “aren’t just good for Europe, they’re good for the United States and they’re vital for the world.” Exactly how that is so he didn’t bother to detail.
In fact, there may be no better example of how bureaucracies develop their own interests than NATO. We are approaching the transatlantic alliance’s 70th anniversary. It was created in a radically different world, one in which the Soviet Union had emerged as Europe’s strongest state after swallowing Eastern and Central European nations as it rolled back Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
Europe had been ravaged by war. Germany, which in recent decades possessed the continent's most powerful military, was in ruins. Great Britain was triumphant but only Winston Churchill's outsize personality created the pretense that it remained a great power. Joseph Stalin's aggressive intentions were uncertain, so an American-created and -dominated alliance seemed to offer geopolitical insurance.
There were other seeming benefits as well. Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, the alliance's first secretary general, famously opined that NATO was to keep the Americans in, Soviets out, and Germans down. In the early years, at least, the alliance helped accomplish all three. NATO's impact was not solely military. By providing a multi-national organization through which West Germany could rearm, the transatlantic pact helped rehabilitate the nation that was destined to again possess Europe's greatest economic strength.
However, even as Dwight Eisenhower served as NATO commander and then U.S. president, he warned against providing Europe with a permanent garrison. He feared turning independent nations into helpless dependents, which is precisely what happened. Even after Europe recovered from the war alliance members consistently lagged in military outlays. They routinely violated their promises to increase spending despite the sometimes frigid winds blowing from the east during the Cold War.
Many Europeans saw little danger of a military invasion. And most Europeans believed that the U.S. would do whatever was necessary to protect them. So they had no reason to spend more.
Although Washington demanded more military outlays under American direction, it discouraged any talk of an independent European defense capability. U.S. officials wanted their European allies to be dependent. Washington was to be the real decider.
This cozy status quo ended with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policies of perestroika and glasnost. It soon was evident that Moscow had neither the capacity nor the will for war with the West. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Warsaw Pact dissolved, there no longer was any there there to the old threat. For a brief moment NATO officials recognized that the transatlantic alliance had lost its raison d’etre and, like all good bureaucrats, worried about preserving their jobs.
However, NATO supporters quickly concocted new duties for the alliance. Promoting student exchanges and fighting the drug war were suggested and discarded, but preparing for “out-of-area” activities, beyond NATO’s members, offered promise. Moreover, with Washington the driving force, the organization embraced states fleeing the one-time Soviet empire. NATO tossed aside security considerations and inducted nations of little military relevance. For instance, no one imagined that the Baltic States might have to be defended. No one bothered to make a military case for adding Croatia and Slovenia. NATO had become the equivalent of an international gentleman’s club to which everyone who was anyone belonged.
Along the way NATO fought foolish wars for reasons of politics rather than security. The Europeans backed Washington—most half-heartedly at best—in a Quixotic nation-building mission in Afghanistan that has entered its 16th year. The U.S. would have been better off not undertaking the task than strong-arming its allies to join. In contrast, America led the fight in “Europe’s wars,” Serbia and Libya, which threatened no alliance member, effectively treating NATO as the end and war as the means.
Yet expansion plans continued to the ever more dubious, with tiny Montenegro the latest country invited to join. However, it was the potential inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine which provoked a crisis with Moscow. Both had been part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Neither had ever been security concerns for America. Both were on Russia's border. Ukraine had particularly significant cultural and economic ties with Moscow, as well as a large Russian-speaking population, yet the U.S. and Europe backed a street putsch against the elected, Moscow-friendly president. Vladimir Putin didn't have to be an authoritarian paranoid to perceive NATO's actions as challenging his nation.
Although his brutal response was unjustified, it didn't threaten any members of the alliance. Rather, it was meant to discourage NATO from adding nations which carried with them a potential casus belli with the nuclear power next door. While the Baltic States have grown fearful—they realize that they never would have been invited to join had alliance members believed the Baltics might actually have to be defended—Putin has done nothing to suggest he hopes to conquer largely non-Russian populations or trigger war with the West.
But the Baltics’ demands for bases and garrisons, even while spending little on their own militaries, well capture the alliance’s history. NATO stands for North America and The Others. Europe possesses a population 70 percent larger than America’s, but spends only about 40 percent as much as on the military as the U.S. No matter America’s other obligations or Europe’s abundant capabilities. Washington is expected to do the heavy military lifting.
This has led to persistent frustration among U.S. policymakers. American officials have begged, cajoled, encouraged, and demanded that Washington’s allies treat NATO as a serious military alliance. In 2011 Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that “Future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
At the same time, the U.S. keeps doing more. It recently funded a counter-productive “reassurance initiative” for its feckless allies and committed men and materiel to garrison NATO’s eastern members, which have the least security relevance to America. Explained Defense Secretary Ashton Carter: “It’s a major sign of the U.S. commitment to strengthening deterrence here.” Yet after years of American support, European nations shouldn’t just be contributing to this effort. They should be the ones “strengthening deterrence.”
Yet none of Washington’s efforts have had any serious effect on European behavior. The continent’s military outlays have been falling for years, even amidst the wailing and caterwauling about Russian depredations to the east. Observed Jochen Bittner of Die Zeit newspaper, “major investments won’t happen here anytime soon. Europe is just not in the mood for it, neither economically nor politically.”
According to the alliance, last year continent-wide military outlays finally edged up an infinitesimal amount, causing joyous celebrations at NATO’s new billion-plus dollar headquarters in Brussels. This year the alliance predicts a three percent hike in real terms, a marvel by European standards. Yet only Estonia, Great Britain, Greece, and Poland join the U.S. in devoting at least two percent of GDP for the military, the alliance’ official standard. Nevertheless, NATO’s Stoltenberg declared: “The Alliance does what it says. And we deliver on our promises.”
Something may be better than nothing, but the Europeans still aren’t serious about bulking up their capabilities. By their actions they are demonstrating that they continue to expect Uncle Sam to take care of any problems in the east or elsewhere. Observed the Financial Times: “As the NATO-led operation over Libya showed, even Europe’s big military powers, France and Britain, cannot conduct a major operation without the U.S. doing the heavy lifting.” That needs to change.
Candidate Donald Trump recognized the problem. Indeed, after the election National Security Adviser-designate Michael Flynn told the Washington Post: “Why do three-quarters of NATO [members] get away with not paying anything? They have to pay their bills. We’ve done a lot, for the better part of half a century, for these countries.”
However, that will not change if the president-elect reassures the Europeans about Washington’s support, pledges America’s eternal commitment to their security, and offers new deployments to back up verbal assurances. The alliance’s other members have demonstrated a ruthless realpolitik. If the U.S. does it, they won’t.
Not to worry, argue some analysts. For instance, Judy Dempsey of the Carnegie Endowment contended that the two percent goal is “no longer an issue and more of a symbolic point.” In her view, Washington benefits by increasing influence in Europe—rarely evidenced in practice, however. She believes NATO combats terrorism and backs democracy in Europe, but the Europeans have an obvious incentive to do so without U.S. subsidies. Finally, she contends, NATO confronts Russia, but the Europeans are well able to do so without American aid. Paying Europe to do what is in its interest to do provides no benefit for Americans.
A Trump administration has a unique opportunity to change this dynamic. Candidate Trump’s criticism of Europe shocked America’s long-term welfare clients. Now they face their worst nightmare. Observed Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute in London: “I think the shock and the amazement in Europe is about how much of a rupture President-elect Trump is compared to any other American politician since 1947.”
So worried are the Europeans that some are talking about doing more militarily. For instance, Wolfgang Ischinger of the Munich Security Conference urged Europeans “to hedge against a possible shift in American grand strategy” by preparing “to invest more in civilian and military capabilities, and to start pooling and sharing defense assets more comprehensively.” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen admitted that “Europe will have to be prepared to take better precautions itself.”
There also is renewed discussion about creating an independent European military. The EU established its Common Security and Defense Policy in 1998, but it remained an illusion. However, France and Germany recently suggested creating an EU military headquarters and sharing military forces. Italy urged creation of “a powerful and usable European Force” available to back NATO or the United Nations. Separately Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy,” promised that “The EU will step up its contribution to Europe’s collective security, working closely with its partners, beginning with NATO.”
However, all of this requires greater military expenditures, which certainly won’t happen if Washington continues to bail out its elders. Army Lt. Col. Robert Murphy called these proposals simply “absurd.” After all, the European Defense Agency was created in 2004 but remains largely a nullity. Even after the exit of Great Britain, which has steadfastly opposed a European force independent of NATO, little substantial is likely to change. Set aside the existential crisis threatening the EU. None of the leading advocates of an independent European defense capability—France, Germany, or Italy—spends even two percent on the military.
Germany, with the world’s fourth largest and continent’s largest economy, fails, in Murphy’s words, to “field a meaningful Army, Navy or Air Force.” Nor will that change. Despite Angela Merkel’s recent admission that her nation is not meeting “expectations of our NATO partners,” there is little reason to believe Berlin’s (or anyone else’s) promises of major, sustained spending increases. Wrote Bittner: “Germany’s recent pledge to spend an additional $8.6 billion on its armed forces between now and 2019 still brings its military expenditures to just 1.2 percent of gross domestic product.”
No one else is likely to rush forward to bolster its forces in response. There simply is no political will do to something that remains unnecessary because of U.S. support. Noted Anand Menon, of Kings College in London: “a lack of political will is reflected in a concomitant failure to invest adequately in military resources.”
Europeans have put far greater effort into shaming the president-elect into maintaining their comfortable status quo: America is to defend Europe, while Europe is to be defended. To suggest that the continent, with a greater population and larger economy than the U.S., should do more, let alone take over responsibility for itself, obviously is too outrageous to contemplate.
European contempt for Trump is clear. After the election European foreign ministers held a “panic dinner,” as diplomats described it, to discuss the election results. Attendees privately admitted that there would have been no similar gathering had Hillary Clinton triumphed. Among the few to publicly admit the obvious was European Parliament President Martin Schulz: “Trump is not only a problem for the EU but for the whole world.” European Commission chairman Jean-Claude Juncker proclaimed that “We must teach the president-elect what Europe is and how it works.” Otherwise “we’ll have two years of wasted time while Mr. Trump tours a world he doesn’t know.”
Such an “educational” process is underway. For instance, von der Leyen, representing a country which doesn’t bother to meet the two percent standard, said Trump had to understand that “NATO isn’t just a business” from which money can be extracted. Kristine Berzina of the German Marshal Fund insisted on “the enthusiastic implementation of the NATO Warsaw Summit’s reassurance measures” as a signal of the new administration’s commitment. Ischinger wrote that the Europeans “expect a clear commitment to the transatlantic partnership.”
But exactly why must Washington, more than seven decades after the conclusion of World War II, treat the continent as a helpless dependent? NATO advocates have no good answer. No one can seriously claim that the Europeans cannot afford to do more. And stating the obvious, that they prefer to spend their money on other priorities, might be too much even for American Atlanticists. Officials like von der Leyen, whose governments lag in their commitment to the alliance, emphasize shared values, but the latter justifies defense cooperation among equals, not a permanent U.S. military dole for Europe.
Some Europeans resort to playing the Hitler card, emphasizing their inability to control their basest instincts. Ischinger argued that without America defending them the Europeans would inevitably end up slaughtering one another: “Historically, it has always been cheaper for the United States to actively underwrite European security instead of leaving Europe largely on its own.” That’s an embarrassing claim. It’s also wrong.
The U.S. saved Europe only once. World War I was a slugfest between imperial powers, all of whom deserved blame for starting the conflict. The most likely outcome was a compromise peace. And even a German victory would have meant nothing beyond Europe: the Kaiser was a conservative monarch, not an ideological totalitarian. Alas, American intervention destroyed any possible balance of power and set the stage for a much more horrific conflict a generation later.
In World War II America saved the continent. But continued support was necessary only up through the Europe's recovery, by the 1970s at the latest. As for the risk of self-immolation, Europe today is anything but poised at the military brink. The contention that only the U.S. presence prevents World War III is the silliest of the many non-serious arguments for continuing NATO as a defense dole.
The starting point for the incoming Trump administration should be to end NATO expansion. Countries such as Montenegro contribute nothing to U.S. security. Rather, America pays them to integrate their minuscule militaries and guarantees their security against threats which concern them, not us. Even more serious potential members, such as Sweden, add more responsibilities than resources. And if war with Russia came, only America, not the other NATO members would be expected to fight on their behalf.
Ultimately, NATO should be turned over to the Europeans, allowing them to handle their defense as they desire. Carnegie’s Dempsey complained that “a world without NATO would be the unraveling of the West.” However, if Europe is so weak that its institutions and shared interests cannot survive without subordination to America, they may not be worth saving. In fact, there is no reason to believe the quaint conceit in Washington that the world anywhere and everywhere is helpless without U.S. domination. That’s certainly not the case in Europe.
Still, Stoltenberg insisted that “Going it alone is not an option, either for Europe or for the United States.” However, turning over defense responsibilities does not mean cutting relations. There is much upon which the U.S. and Europe should cooperate. But that doesn’t mean Washington should subsidize its wealthier cousins when the latter don’t feel like paying for their own defense. Until now no U.S. president has been willing to stop playing this rigged international game. President Donald Trump should say no more. He can make defense mean defense.