Bob Gates’ criticism of european defence shortcomings yesterday was couched in unusually harsh terms. Then again, NATO faces an uncertain future and there’s a growing sense in the United States, I think, that europe is failing to lift its weight when it comes to defence matters. As Gates pointed out just 5 of NATO’s 28 members spend more than 2% of GDP on defence. Consequently:
The demilitarization of Europe — where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it — has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.
Right now, the alliance faces very serious, long-term, systemic problems. The NATO budgetary crisis is a case in point and a symptom of deeper problems with the way NATO perceives threats, formulates requirements, and prioritizes and allocates resources. It is hardly two months into the new year, but we already face shortfalls of hundreds of millions of euros – a natural consequence of having underinvested in collective defense for over a decade.
All of this should be a wake-up call that NATO needs serious, far-reaching, and immediate reforms to address a crisis that has been years in the making.
Much of this is fair enough and it’s certainly true that european capabilities have not kept pace with NATO’s transformation from, as Gates put it, "a static, defensive force to an expeditionary force – from a defensive alliance to a security alliance." Nevertheless, this seems more complicated a matter than simply a question of irresponsible
europeans Venusians failing to meet their obligations. That is, while european countries certainly deserve some share of the blame for the metal-fatigue afflicting the alliance, so too do the Americans Martians.
If europe has failed to build a stronger defence, that’s partly because the Americans have both been happy to subsidise european defence in return for military primacy but also because the United States has, generally speaking, not looked too kindly upon efforts at creating, or even designing, an independent european defence mechanism.
For instance, after the Anglo-French agreeement at St Malo in 1998, Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, argued that any European Defence and Security Policy (EDSP) was fine so long as: a) it didn’t duplicate anything done by NATO, b) there be no decoupling from the US and NATO and c) no discrimination against non-EU NATO members such as Turkey.
In other words, european defence would still be guaranteed by the United States and Washington would resist the development of any credible independent capability. You can certainly argue that this made sense and was, even, the correct policy. But it hardly created any incentive for european countries to increase their defence spending. Indeed, quite the reverse, it may have exacerbated the "free-rider" problem, albeit for perfectly understandable, even laudable reasons.
For that matter, it may also be the case that Britain has to take some of the responsibility for this too and not only because our own defence capability has been eroded. It seems at least possible that absent a credible lead from Britain (and France) there simply won’t be any beefed-up european defence capability.
Again, our preference for the American rather than the european end of the alliance may well be sensible but it comes with a price and part of that, I suspect, is a weaker european contribution. Once more, this isn’t a question of malice or incompetence necessarily, rather a reflection of choices made and the consequences of those reasonable, even rational, choices.
UPDATE: This is Brother Korski’s territory of course, so I also recommend this post.