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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Europe, pay up

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates gestures while speaking during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, June 9. Photo: AP/Virginia Mayo

Last week, U.S, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates blasted NATO for its “military irrelevance” and a “dim if not dismal future.” It has become a sad and all-too-common refrain among defense officials of all stripes, including Gates (who delivered a similar speech last year).

Gates is certainly right about NATO’s defense spending. According to its own data, every single member state in the alliance, including the United States, spends far less as a percentage of GDP than it did at the end of the Cold War. The smallest reduction in spending, though, is American; our European allies, as well as Canada, now spend substantially less. Only five countries in NATO — the U.S., the U.K., France, Greece and Albania — spend the minimum 2 percent of their GDP that is the NATO standard for maintaining the alliance.

This trend of relatively weak countries looking for a free ride in alliances when one powerful member outspends them is not altogether surprising. But this imbalance in defense spending between America and the rest of NATO member states has far-ranging consequences. As a result of underspending on its military in terms of its NATO-agreed standard, Europeans have more money to spend on their social programs. Seen in that light, some can argue that American defense spending is subsidizing European social welfare.

The spending imbalance has political consequences as well. In Libya, for example, the U.S. was a reluctant participant in the “not-really-war” (as President Obama now calls it). It was only after the Arab League endorsed the intervention, with the full backing of the U.N. Security Council and the NATO Council, that the U.S. got involved militarily. However, despite the war being conducted under the auspices of NATO, the U.S. still shoulders the vast majority of the financial and material burden for the war. This means that if American political concerns undermine the legal basis for the military’s involvement (something Congress is actively working to do), then the whole effort could collapse. NATO just can’t sustain that level of operations without the U.S.

In Afghanistan, too, NATO’s underspending on defense has meant the U.S. has had to shoulder most of the military and reconstruction burden. While Canada, the U.K. and France have each sent thousands of troops, losing hundreds in the process, their participation pales in comparison to the 100,000 U.S. troops in the country and the $10 billion the U.S. spends per month. Smaller NATO countries, such as Hungary, struggle to deploy 100 soldiers at a time. There’s just no comparing the difference in scale.

What’s so strange about the enormous imbalance between European and American defense spending is that European countries still see national security threats outside their borders. France, the U.K. and Italy all were at the forefront of urging intervention in Libya, but this triumvirate was unable to launch an adequate military response without the U.S. France also has intervened repeatedly in Côte d’Ivoire, launching air strikes against Laurent Gbagbo’s illegitimate regime this year and during the brief civil war in 2003. Its defense spending, however, has shrunk over the last eight years along with the rest of Europe.

Russia, too, still looms on the horizon for the former Eastern bloc countries. France may feel comfortable selling Russia frigates and helicopters, and Germany might not shy away from a Russian gas pipeline, but the NATO countries that once had to face Russian domination still look eastward with more than a bit of dread. Even so, that dread hasn’t produced more defense spending.

Part of the reason for Europe’s reduction in military spending is the financial crisis gripping the continent. Much like in the U.S., enormous debt burdens have begun to destroy national credit ratings. While Greece is certainly the closest to total collapse, the economies of countries like Ireland, Portugal and Spain have also struggled in the past year. Only Germany has remained financially solvent over the last several years, but the country remains skeptical of military action after the devastating aftermath of WWII. The 6,000 German troops deployed to Afghanistan remain deeply controversial with the public, and it chose to abstain from voting in the U.N. Security Council for intervening in Libya, though it did vote yes within NATO.

Now, there is a very good argument to be made that the U.S. is actually far too profligate and militarist when it intervenes. But for missions NATO undertakes as an alliance, it’s important to share that burden more equitably. The U.S. will continue to spend the most on its military for years to come, but European countries should certainly up their contributions, especially if they expect NATO to undertake missions like the one in Libya

Ever since World War II, one of the primary goals of deepening European political and economic integration was to create a unified defense policy so as to avoid another war. But after the Cold War, it’s been increasingly difficult to rally the continent as a whole around a common defense policy. There are institutions within Europe to coordinate and manage defense issues, like the Common Security and Defense Policy, which contains the European Defense Agency and OCCAR, but these institutions have not yet resuscitated European defense budgets or reversed any spending cuts.

Given Europe’s inability to effectively leverage its military, Secretary Gates was right to warn European member states that they risk sliding into irrelevancy. But is that really a bad thing? Even 20 years ago, a Europe so secure from threat that its militaries are in a constant state of shrink must have seemed impossible — that there really is no real military threat to European security is a fantastic achievement. Given European experiences in World War II, which were orders of magnitude worse than what Americans ever had to face, it is understandable that, as a whole, they’re just not as eager to get involved in more wars.

That doesn’t mean Europe cannot play a role in international security. There is a strong place for Europe in peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, Security Council enforcement and anti-piracy — all military roles that fall outside the realm of “war” but still require armies to deploy. The real danger is if Europe declines to use its relative prosperity to secure a similar peace for other regions of the world. Then it really will have chosen irrelevance.