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Commentary | 8 February 2017

Who Defends Europe? Time to Get Real on Sharing the Burden

President Trump clearly feels Europeans must do more for their own defence. He is not alone among Americans. Many think the US has got a bad deal.  So how far will Trump go to put America First?

America’s European Allies say they aim to increase their defence spending to 2% of national GDP by 2024. But how many of them mean it?

Defence burdensharing is a toxic battleground in the United States’ new relationship with Europe.   It will dominate when President Trump eventually meets NATO and the EU in Brussels.  And the worse US-Europe relations get, the more sour the issue will become unless all sides grow more realistic about what they give and what they get in Europe’s defence.

NATO data illuminate the debate’s lack of balance.

Americans focus on defence spending inputs, arguing that worldwide US defence effort counts. On this basis, NATO input figures show that over 70% of total defence spending by NATO Allies is US, that only some 21% of it will be by EU Allies after Brexit, that only four other Allies (out of 27) spend more than 2% of their GDP on defence, and that six Allies spent less on defence last year than the year before.  Apparently slam dunk proof that Europeans don’t really care about their own security and that the US has to do all the heavy lifting.

Europeans tend to focus on defence outputs.  NATO is actively trying to reduce its reliance on the US for the pool of military forces and capabilities that NATO leaders have agreed the Alliance needs.  This is an effort for the next 20 years.  And initial NATO output figures already suggest that the US  provides less than its 46% share of NATO’s total GDP.  Apparently evidence that the United States is not fully pulling its weight in an Alliance where “fair shares” are measured by economic strength.

The truth lies somewhere in between, in other measures of defence effectiveness and security self-interest.

For the 21 areas of defence capability where NATO judges that it falls short – things like air-to-air refuelling and strategic lift– Allies have a sensible rule of thumb that the US should be expected to provide at most half.  On this, Europeans are clearly falling down, having coasted for decades on higher US investment in capabilities.  Only nine European Allies currently meet the agreed 2024 target of spending 20% or more of their defence budgets on equipment and research.

But the fight is as much about geopolitical perceptions as actual numbers.  More than 70 years after the Second World War why should the US contribute to defence of the richest economy and some of the richest societies on the planet?  Why shouldn’t Europeans just look after their own security?

The answers depend on how isolationist Trump’s America wants to be and how far the EU is serious about the pursuit of “strategic autonomy” – the ambition to which EU leaders recommitted at their European Council meeting last month.

It’s easy to see trouble looming if the burdensharing debate shifts to this emotive political level.  So all sides need to hang onto the facts.  We could talk about the interdependencies of the transatlantic economy.  Or the way in which in the last century the United States got sucked into European wars against its first instincts.  But let’s just focus on some defence points.

Provisional NATO figures suggest that, even in the unlikely event that European Allies deliver all the extra military capability that NATO is asking of them, the US share of the NATO capability burden would still be more than one third in 2036.

So it’s a safe bet that, for several more decades, well beyond 2036, even if they make a very considerable effort, Europeans are set to remain significantly dependent on the US for their own security.  And both sides are basically stuck with that.

President Trump is certainly stuck with that, even over a second term.  By 2024 European Allies will have struggled to meet even the 2% target.  For the 13 Allies like Germany who spend 1.2% of GDP or less, defence budget increases every year from now to 2024 of more than 6% on top of GDP growth would be necessary.  And it would be hard to spend the extra money well: it takes time to grow equipment rather than personnel, pay or pensions; military procurement and delivery are slow.

For President Trump the choices all look bad.  US pullback or withdrawal would reduce leverage for deals with Russia, weaken the Alliance and constrain NATO’s ability to do either collective defence in the Euro-Atlantic area or counter-terrorism on its periphery.  A US climbdown would mean continuing burdensharing recrimination.  A downwards redefinition of Europe’s defence needs, would take the pressure off underperforming Allies and perhaps permanently deprive the US capable partners.

So what should the meet-Trump NATO mini-summit (and the back-to-back EU-US leaders’ summit) later this year actually do?

The answer is traditional.  But that doesn’t make it wrong.  Americans and Europeans must get real about defence interdependence.

Practically, NATO must do better collectively in addressing its identified capability shortfalls. Credibility demands that it should show it knows how to address these.  EU Member States should protect their credibility by making good on EU security pledges.

Realistically, all non-US Allies should demonstrate that they are serious about boosting both their defence capabilities and their defence spending.  The EU should accelerate its partnership with NATO. And both organisations need good news for Trump about the coherent, complementary and interoperable capability development to which their members committed in their conclusions last month on implementing the 2016 EU-NATO leaders’ Joint Declaration.

Politically, Europeans need to hear from President Trump himself, and not just from Theresa May or General Mattis, that he is indeed 100% committed to NATO.  He needs to explain to Americans that NATO Allies are the best friends America has.

But Europeans in return must wake up.  They must acknowledge that allies and national security must be constantly earned by their own efforts and increased investment.  European leaders need to explain to their publics that Europe is not the safe place they have dreamt of since 1989, that Europe’s defence will remain dependent on US military capabilities for a long time to come, and that this is not just a necessary but a good thing.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.
Note: This article has been authored for the 2017 edition of Security Times, which will appear on the occasion of the 17 – 19 February 2017 Munich Security Conference. The European Leadership Network are grateful to the Security Times for authorising its pre-release.