After Russia attacked Ukraine, European governments claimed to be serious about defense. However, so far few have acted on their latest promises. The continent’s continued reliance on America is evident from European proposals for military escalation — which could only be pursued by Washington. The Biden administration should insist on an alliance rebalance.
For more than seven decades, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has stood for North America and The Others. It was not supposed to be this way. Warned Dwight D. Eisenhower, NATO’s first supreme commander: “We cannot be a modern Rome guarding the far frontiers with our legions if for no other reason than that these are not, politically, our frontiers. What we must do is to assist these people [to] regain their confidence and get on their own military feet.”
However, even after recovering economically from World War II, European governments preferred to invest in their welfare states rather than their militaries. American policymakers preferred to dominate the continent’s decision-making rather than limit the U.S. public’s military liability. As a result, the U.S. consciously acted as a modern Rome. Still, Washington wanted the Europeans to do more. Alas, America’s clients provided promises rather than performance, reducing U.S. officials to begging.
A decade ago, soon-to-retire Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticized Europe’s lackadaisical military efforts: “I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: Between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership — be they security guarantees or headquarters billets — but don’t want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.”
Unfortunately, little had changed before Moscow invaded Ukraine. Many European NATO members undertook modest increases in military outlays after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas in 2014, but most remained well short of the transatlantic alliance’s formal objective of two percent of GDP. Why spend a lot more when the U.S. is not only doing most of the work, but constantly reassuring you that it will always do most of the work, no matter how little you do?
One of the most pernicious aspects of such an unbalanced alliance is the incentive for European governments to concoct irresponsible military schemes for NATO, meaning the U.S. military. For instance, early in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict Baltic State politicians urged establishment of a “no-fly zone” for Ukraine, which would mean shooting down Russian aircraft, destroying Russian air defenses, and controlling Russian airspace, from which the Russian air force is operating. Escalation to a wider and deadlier conflict could scarcely be avoided.
Conveniently, the Baltics would not be expected to fight Moscow. Collectively, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia possess a dozen transport aircraft. Everyone knows which state would be expected to defeat Russia and retaliate if the nukes started flying. Only through NATO can Baltic leaders indulge the fantasy of borrowing America’s military to make war on Russia.
The latest entry in Europe’s chutzpah contest is Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall. Dreaming at his desk rather than training for combat, last week he insisted that the time for war was now. NATO should go on the offensive! No worries, it would be a cakewalk, guaranteed. Forget pushing for a peace agreement. The alternative, wrote Tisdall, is simple: “using NATO’s overwhelming power to decisively turn the military tide.”
Naturally, he is short on details. Apparently, Europe’s vast legions would overwhelm the barbarians in the east, presumably with the Guardian scribbler in the lead, waving the troops forward with his pen. He continued: “direct, targeted, forceful western action … [is] the only feasible way to bring this escalating horror to a swift conclusion while ensuring Putin, and those who might emulate him, do not profit from lawless butchery. … Enough of the half-measures and the dithering! NATO should act now to force Putin’s marauding troops back inside Russia’s recognized borders.”
Of course, when Tisdall spoke of “NATO,” he meant North America and The Others, more specifically the U.S. He certainly didn’t mean the United Kingdom, which today has227main battle tanks. Alas, this, er, vast land armada, even if airdropped on the approaches to Moscow, would barely be noticed by the Kremlin.
While Tisdall’s enthusiasm for war is substantial, his nation’s commitment to a military build-up is not. London earlier pledged that the UK would raise military outlays to 2.5 percent of GDP. Yet, reported BBC, this year “the government is going to break the promise on defense spending that it made in its manifesto in 2019.” Even as Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to do more, he “refused to increase defense spending this year, as ministers and the head of the army plead for more money to deal with the Russian threat.” This rejection came despite warnings by defense secretary Ben Wallace “that the armed forces were surviving on a ‘diet of smoke and mirrors.’”
Elsewhere, Europe’s enthusiasm for building up its forces is also ebbing. After all, President Joe Biden has been rushing US forces, men and materiel, to Europe’s defense, proving that Washington will do what it always has done. Why should America’s defense clients put themselves out?
Even Germany’s vaunted Zeitenwende, or “watershed moment,” announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz days after Russia’s attack, seems likely to turn out to be less than advertised. Significant bureaucratic, institutional, and political barriers to a German military build-up remain. There’s an extra €100 billion (roughly $100 billion) to spend, but that doesn’t mean rapid or permanent increases in the base budget. Worried theWall Street Journal: “Hitting the 2% goal would mean annual defense spending of some €75 billion in the next fiscal year, but Mr. Scholz’s government has submitted a budget accounting for only €50 billion, roughly the same amount as before the ‘turning point.’ The plan seems to be to top up annual spending by including one-quarter of the special procurement budget.”
Moreover, the extra money will eventually dry up, after which the Bundeswehr is likely to run short of manpower and maintenance funding. Reported Deutsche Welle: “What remains unclear is the Bundeswehr's next step once the €100 billion windfall is gone. The regular defense budget is certainly rising. But over the longer term that will not suffice to keep paying for costly weapons projects. Finance Minister Christian Lindner has stressed that the Bundeswehr special fund is a ‘one-off exception.’”
Ultimately, Washington’s dismal finances are likely to force the issue in Europe. A decade ago, Gates presciently observed: “As you all know, America’s serious fiscal situation is now putting pressure on our defense budget, and we are in a process of assessing where the U.S. can or cannot accept more risk as a result of reducing the size of our military. Tough choices lie ahead affecting every part of our government, and during such times, scrutiny inevitably falls on the cost of overseas commitments—from foreign assistance to military basing, support, and guarantees.”
These days will soon be upon America. The Congressional Budget Office recently warned that Washington’s debt-to-GDP ratio has broken 100 percent, is approaching the record set after World War II, and will near 200 percent by mid-century. If finally forced to choose between social services at home and military subsidies abroad, America’s aging population is likely to join its European cousins in choosing the former. Then the latter will have to decide whether they believe their countries are worth defending.
Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine was a great wrong that seemed to wake a militarily somnolent continent. Now the Europeans show signs of slipping back into their previous defense stupor, but the old way of doing things is no longer sustainable. Fiscal reality may finally force US policymakers to put Americans first.