For 58 of NATO’s 62 years of existence, the United States has had an ambassador to the military alliance. For many of those years, particularly the most recent ones, our man in Brussels has had a constant, overarching mission: Beg our allies to spend more on their own militaries.
Such was related to me once by one of those ambassadors. So it didn’t surprise me last week when departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates unloaded on those allies that view the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a means of outsourcing their national defense to us.
As Gates warned, that outsourcing won’t hold up forever.
The trans-Atlantic alliance, Gates said, had finally reached the long-feared gap between “those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who [only] enjoy the benefits of NATO membership.”
Of the 28 NATO members, Gates said, just five spend as much on defense each year — more than 2 percent of gross domestic product — as they agreed. Those five are America, Britain, France, Greece and Albania. Among the economic powers that don’t pass muster: Germany, Italy and Canada.
For years after World War II, this arrangement was defensible. Our European allies were vulnerable and economically devastated. We had spent much blood and treasure on two wars to preserve their freedom. Providing a deterrent to the Soviets, and a third war, made military and financial sense.
But even in those years, as Gates noted, the United States accounted for only about half of all NATO military spending. Now, well after the end of the Cold War ended, we pay more than 75 percent of the tab.
NATO has assumed nominal responsibility for security in Afghanistan. Yet, Gates said, “total European defense spending declined, by one estimate, by nearly 15 percent in the decade following 9/11.”
Perhaps that’s why, after trying hard to praise the allies for what they’ve done in Afghanistan, Gates was compelled to lament that “despite more than 2 million troops in uniform — not counting the U.S. military — NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 40,000 troops.” And that includes both support personnel and boots on the ground.
The tipping point that Gates correctly identified was the U.S. budget and debt crisis. Our national defense is one of the core duties of the federal government and, as our belt tightens, should not be cut as harshly as other functions.
But other nations’ defense?
Many Americans point to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and, now, Libya as sources of savings. While some scaling back is justifiable, a wholesale Mideast withdrawal is illogical — for the same reasons we’ve subsidized Europe’s postwar defense.
The Afghanistan mission was, for all of NATO, a recognition that the West’s collective threats, focus and priorities had shifted. Cutting spending on antiterrorism efforts makes far less sense than does asking Europeans to provide for more of the defense of Europe.
Beyond the immediate budgetary savings, there’s another benefit to insisting Europeans stand up as we stand down.
Postwar Europe is the biggest contributor to the illusion that a cradle-to-grave welfare system is affordable. But it’s precisely because we’ve been paying for their guns that their butter has seemed affordable. We have been the enablers for their grand fiction.
Americans will never know such a luxury.
To be clear-eyed about the sustainability of existing entitlements (such as Medicare) and sought-after ones (single-payer health care), we need to see that a nation can’t afford both lavish social welfare and a robust defense.
Europe will prove that — if it ever bears more of the costs of our alliance.
– By Kyle Wingfield