Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 22 February 2024


On Europe’s Defense, U.S. Needs to Take Yes for an Answer

Defense ministers meet at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 15. Photo: Zhao Dingzhe/Zuma Press

For a politician who presents himself as an expert on the art of the deal, Donald Trump struggles with that most basic element of any negotiation: knowing when to take yes for an answer. Witness his recent fulminations about America’s role in Europe’s defense.

Mr. Trump’s pronouncements this month—in essence, let Russia have any European country that doesn’t spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on its own defense—join a long line of U.S. complaints about Europe not pulling its weight in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In office, Mr. Trump periodically frightened Europeans with the thought that he might withdraw from NATO in protest over European free-riding.

The latest iteration of that 2% spending target, and a companion target to devote at least 20% of defense expenditure to procurement, dates from 2014, when Barack Obama’s administration was the one haranguing European allies to step up. As is his wont, Mr. Trump is merely crystallizing by stating provocatively and unhelpfully a consensus that already existed in Washington.

Emphasis on “unhelpfully.” If the goal is to goad European allies into taking more responsibility for their own defense, Mr. Trump’s approach could end up dragging Europe backward rather than forward.

Europe had already begun heeding America’s call on defense spending before Mr. Trump’s remarks. The NATO secretariat announced this month that 18 of the alliance’s 31 members are on track to hit the 2% target in 2024, up from 11 last year and three in 2014. All allies now meet the 20% procurement target.

Thank Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine two years ago this week opened many European eyes to threats they’d chosen for too long to ignore. NATO is a very different alliance today than it was in 2022, both in size—Finland has joined and Sweden will soon—and seriousness of purpose.

As this transformation continues, a new challenge comes into view: not that Europe isn’t spending enough, but that spending isn’t enough to guarantee Europe’s defense.

Europe’s lack of defense spending has long been symptomatic of a deeper attitudinal divide between the U.S. and the Continent. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, America still perceived the world as a fairly dangerous place. The Europeans didn’t want to believe that. This cultural rift was the true source of the tension that led to Washington’s griping about NATO and has caused myriad problems more difficult to solve than defense spending.

Europeans had a lot to gain from the myth that history had ended. As many continental governments realized, playing down security concerns let politicians shift expenditures from militaries to far more popular social spending. A peaceful world demanded delightfully little of European citizens, who would no longer be asked—or conscripted—to serve in their nations’ militaries.

The past two years have witnessed concrete signs these entrenched attitudes are changing. Berlin, suddenly plunged into a fiscal crisis surrounding green-energy subsidies, steadfastly refuses to touch the €100 billion Chancellor Olaf Scholz set aside for defense procurement in February 2022—even as battles over a budget shortfall imperil his coalition administration. No more dipping into the defense budget to fund domestic priorities.

France’s latest defense budget, which is set to push it above the 2%-of-GDP mark this year, features an expansion of its troop reserves alongside stepped-up investment in equipment. The U.K. has seen new debates about troop levels and the state of its nuclear deterrent.

Yet to recite these examples is to hint at how much more needs to be done. Europe must rebuild hollowed-out defense industries to absorb that money; the struggle to produce enough ammunition to deliver on promises to Ukraine is instructive. Increasing military personnel numbers is a multiyear process of recruitment, training and cultural change that encourages young people to view the military as a desirable career option.

European governments (and voters) also need to relearn how to assess strategic risks and set spending priorities. Still to come in many parts of Europe—in a world of rising interest rates, slowing economic growth and unstable tax bases—are fights over which domestic priorities will have to give way to defense.

Washington should be eager to encourage allies to undertake these cultural transformations, and ready to help. The danger is that in a mistimed fit of pique, the U.S. withdraws its interest in Europe precisely when European leaders could most benefit from Washington’s political cover to make challenging domestic choices about defense. Such a withdrawal can only embolden the anti-Americans, Putin admirers, pacifists and myriad other naïfs and cranks in Europe who have yet to be touched by the Continent’s new realities.

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In a perfect world, European politicians and voters would recognize their own best interests without constant nudges and prods from the U.S. In the real world, they often don’t or can’t for domestic political reasons. A healthy American realism would be to recognize when the good guys in Europe are winning those arguments and not throw them under the bus.

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