The Europeans let the U.S. finance their security. That does not show solidarity, and it is dangerous. Higher expenditures for defense are not a gift to the U.S.
President Trump is often wrong when he speaks about security policy, but in one regard, he is right: The Europeans in NATO are spending too little for their defense. They are freeloaders when it comes to security policy. Europeans depend on the U.S. to come to their aid in case of an emergency and prefer to spend their money on other things. What Trump has not yet noticed, but which is even worse, is that the little the Europeans do spend on defense is spent improperly, for the wrong or inflated purchases.
Improper Burden Sharing
Without the U.S., Europe’s defense is up a creek. The U.S. shoulders much more than the Europeans. Here it is not just a matter of the often-quoted 2 percent of gross domestic product for defense that the U.S. easily spends and most Europeans do not. The U.S. is also the only one to contribute to the especially expensive equipment like satellites or transport capacity to NATO in sufficient measure. The U.S. not only spends a lot, it delivers a lot to, and above all, that which is needed. Europe, on the other hand, only spends money on an army that is less and less efficient and that is made up of 27 minimum armies.
The controversy about a fair distribution of the burden in the alliance is as old as NATO itself. In 2002, the nations agreed to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. The solitary idea of solidarity behind this was if all nations invested 2 percent in defense, they would all contribute to the collective defense with the same share of economic output.
Two percent was never a problem for the U.S.; the Europeans were always the problem children. For years, the Europeans cut their defense budgets because they no longer saw any threat to their security and therefore believed themselves able to ignore the 2 percent guideline without consequences.
That first changed in 2014, when a tangible military threat returned to Europe with the Ukraine crisis. Accordingly, NATO agreed to reactivate the 2 percent rule. By 2024, all nations intend to raise their defense spending to 2 percent of their GDP.
Some, like Estonia and Poland, have actually also raised their expenditures. The majority, however, have left it at small increases, and some have done nothing at all. By and large, the large majority of European nations have considerably missed the self-formulated 2 percent target.
Since Trump became president, the pressure has been mounting on the Europeans to back up their words with action. Trump is demanding a plan from them by the end of the year with deadlines and intermediate steps showing how they want to achieve the 2 percent defense expenditures. Otherwise, he says, he will have to rethink the U.S. security agreements. Considering the tone of the U.S. president and his aura of unpredictability, Europeans fear that the U.S. could actually cut back its support if they do not do more.
Not Paying Does Not Show Solidarity and Is Dangerous
Trump is actually right: The Europeans are spending too little. They are not holding to their own standards. Allowing one’s security to be financed by a large U.S. partner is not solidarity in a community like NATO, where each one defends the others.
It is dangerous because Europe’s defense is up a creek without the United States. For the short and intermediate terms, Europe cannot guarantee its security without the United States. The defense of Europe, that is, the protection of its territory, its population and its political and societal systems, depends on the nuclear and conventional capabilities of the United States.
Politically, Europe cannot afford a U.S. pullback, either. The repercussions would extend far beyond NATO. It would concern, for example, the capability of mutually framing the global order, such as with the Iran agreement.
Improperly Investing Is at Least Just as Bad
The Europeans, however, should not increase their expenditures to do Trump a favor. They must understand that the 2 percent is not a gift to the U.S., but instead a necessary investment in their own security. Therefore, these investments should not be like a flash in the pan, but rather a solid investment plan in the long-term security of Europe.
Simply spending more money, however, will change nothing about how minimally useful the European contributions are. Until now, Europe has experienced yawning gaps and useless redundancies precisely because the Europeans are not spending their money efficiently. Instead of buying what everyone in NATO urgently needs, every country only buys what it would like. Yet the Europeans could get so much more out of every invested euro if they would plan and acquire weapon systems together.
Ramp Up Cleverly – Not for Trump, But for Europe
Europe must spend more, and in fact for the right things and long-term – because only that will unburden the U.S. and also help Europe to defend itself. Regardless of how much money is involved, if the Europeans continue to throw it out the window because they would rather create jobs with their resources instead of security, then that will not unburden the U.S., which will then need to continue to play the role of Europe’s fire department.
At the NATO summit, the Europeans should therefore constructively revise the words of the U.S president: Spend more – but cleverly. Then both will profit, the U.S. and Europe.