A year ago, whenever the NATO summit meeting that starts in Wales this week was mentioned, the question of what the agenda should be elicited near-universal head scratching. With the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, a quiet Europe on the security front and a lack of enthusiasm in Washington and Brussels for any deeper involvement in the Middle East, the list of possible topics was anything but headline-grabbing.
What a difference a few months make. Russia has invaded a neighboring European country, Ukraine, and forcibly annexed part of it, Crimea. Meanwhile, on Europe’s periphery, the Middle East grows increasingly unstable, violent and dangerous for America and Europe.
NATO has a strong claim to being the most important political-military alliance in human history. Not only was the alliance a bulwark against Soviet encroachment for four decades, but it also created the security conditions that have enabled the European Continent, once war-torn, to become “whole and free.” And let’s not forget that over the last 15 years, the United States has gone into war together with NATO, or with NATO members on its side, on four different occasions.
Yet the Atlantic alliance today seems to be running on fumes. Even after the invasion of Ukraine not much has changed. Most of the military measures taken so far by the alliance in response to Russia’s intervention have been modest at best.
Behind this muted reaction lies Europe’s declining interest in the alliance. There is no more telling evidence of this than the precipitous decline in the European member states’ defense budgets over the past two decades. Despite the gentleman’s agreement reached by NATO members in 2002 to maintain a floor for national defense budgets of at least 2 percent of gross domestic product, of the major powers only Britain tops that mark. And national studies report that, unless budget trends are altered, Britain, too, may fall below that 2 percent threshold in 2017.
The reduction in military spending is a common theme across Europe. Five years ago, according to NATO figures, France’s military budget amounted to 2.4 percent of its G.D.P.; this past year, it stood at 1.9 percent, and France’s budget law orders no increase before 2019. As for Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, it spends only 1.3 percent of its G.D.P. on defense.
As recently as the 1990s, NATO’s European states spent on average about 2.3 percent of G.D.P. on defense. This is not a large burden, to be sure, but substantially greater than today’s average of 1.5 percent. America’s share of NATO budgets is about 22 percent, while its total defense expenditure now stands at 73 percent of the aggregate military spending of all alliance members — up 5 percentage points since 2007. This jump is all the more striking since it has occurred even as the United States has made substantial cuts to its defense budget (though it still spends 3.6 percent of G.D.P. on the military).
This trend has already had an impact on how Americans view transAtlantic security ties. As Robert M. Gates pointedly observed in 2011, during his last trip to Europe as defense secretary: “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
So far, with the exception of the NATO members neighboring Russia, the Baltic nations and Poland, no one is even talking about hitting the 2 percent target. Rather, the allies’ response has been to suggest that, in the policy makers’ parlance, they can get more “bang for their buck” by “smart defense” initiatives in which states share and pool resources and cooperate in developing military systems based on mutual need.
But there are limits to how much capability these measures can squeeze out of dwindling budgets. As long as Europe remains a confederation of sovereign states, there will be duplication in military establishments and an understandable reluctance to pool military assets, which may entail a loss of control over how and when they will be used.
So, what’s to be done? As the reaction to Mr. Gates’s criticism shows, official complaints and exhortations have had no effect. There must be real consequences if there is to be any chance of turning things around. A dramatic step would be for Congress to pass legislation amending the North Atlantic Treaty to the effect that the United States would no longer consider itself bound to meet the treaty’s security guarantee for any member nation that spends less than 2 percent of its G.D.P. on defense.
Given Europe’s economic problems, it may be unreasonable to expect allies to hit this mark in the near term, but that level of expenditure is surely achievable within the next five years. Two percent is hardly an outrageous burden to ask countries to accept in order to shore up the Continent’s security and help preserve international stability, a stability from which they certainly benefit.
If the United States were to adopt such a measure, it would be interpreted as a last-ditch effort to save the Atlantic alliance from sliding into insignificance. But if NATO’s poor showing in Libya in 2011 and its weak response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine are any indication, we’re close to that point now.
As the summit meeting delegates gather this week and survey the security threats that Europe faces, they should reflect on how vital an institution NATO has been. It is too important to be allowed to fade into irrelevance merely for lack of this minimal level of funding.