A panel of distinguished former defense leaders and diplomats chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has produced a vision for the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance called NATO 2020. According to this proposal, NATO needs to do more, spend more and be more visible in the world. According to the panel, NATO must be willing to fight and operate far from its borders to defend its members in a new world of terrorism, piracy and cyber warfare. At the same time, it has to ensure that the central mission of collective defense is not shortchanged. Finally, if the European members of the Alliance want it to meet the challenges of the new century they must both spend more on defense and do it wisely.
Unfortunately, NATO 2020 is pure fantasy. Its vision of an Alliance able to dash around the world and fight on the land, air, seas and cyber space is undermined by an unwillingness to spend even the bare minimums required for collective self defense. Only five members of the Alliance even meet the minimum agreed target for defense spending of 2% of GDP. This number is itself laughable since it allows for only the most limited defense expenditures on such necessities as training, munitions or the acquisition of new equipment. While the presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan is laudable and their contribution significant, those same units could neither get to the fight or be sustained there without U.S. assistance. To a large extent the U.S. is not simply the largest contributor to the Alliance, it is the Alliance.
Economic and demographic realities argue against any change in the continuing downward trend in defense spending by European NATO. One of the few countries to exceed the 2% threshold is Greece. Anyone want to guess how long it will be before the government in Athens must cut defense spending to meet the austerity plan imposed on it by the EU and IMF? The EU’s debt crisis argues against any increased spending on defense. This problem will be made worse in the years to come with the graying of Europe. Simply put, Europe is not producing enough Europeans to even sustain the costs of its welfare state much less support a more robust defense.
When I first came to Washington some decades ago, NATO’s main concern was improving the efficiency with which it spent what, with 20/20 hindsight, appears now to be a treasure trove of resources. Then as now, sensible voices called for NATO members to pool their resources, agree to specialize their roles in the Alliance and reduce the competing bureaucracies that ate up defense budgets. To the many voices in the past who called on the Alliance’s members to spend more and more wisely on defense without success we can now add that of Secretary Albright. What could not be accomplished in the face of the Soviet threat stands no chance of success in an era in which the threat is nebulous and distant.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently warned a U.S. audience that cuts were coming in U.S. defense spending. The most logical thing for other NATO members to do given such a situation is for each to pick up a little bit of the slack. But that would fly in the face of decades-old habits of free riding off of the military capabilities and defense budgets of the United States. I am sure there will be some countries that will even ask why they should spend more when the U.S. is spending less. Of course this argument ignores the disparity in defense spending now and even in the future, as well as the fact that it is Europe that is more directly threatened by the new array of dangers than is the U.S.
If the downward trend in their defense spending continues, at some point, possibly soon, Europe will no longer be a credible security partner for the U.S. At that point it won’t take another commission of wise persons chaired by a former Secretary of State to predict the outcome. The consequences will be obvious and catastrophic for Europe’s security. It will also be Europe’s fault.
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