The Demilitarization of Europe

Now circulating among NATO member countries is a draft "Strategic Concept," a document that describes the alliance's core roles and missions. It will be submitted for formal approval at the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon in November. The previous Strategic Concept was adopted more than a decade ago, in 1999, and a revised document is long overdue.

Much of the debate so far has focused on reconciling the ongoing mission in Afghanistan with concerns among NATO's Eastern and Central European members that the organization not forget its fundamental purpose of collective self-defense, especially in the face of an increasingly assertive Russia. The alliance is also deliberating over how issues such as piracy, cyber defense and energy security fit (or don't fit) within NATO's main missions. So far not on the agenda, but of critical importance, is the accelerating decline in the allies' defense budgets.

In 2002, at the NATO summit in Prague, the allies endorsed a target for each member to spend at least 2% of its GDP on defense. But in 2009, aside from the United States, only four of NATO's 28 members met that target: the United Kingdom, France, Greece and Albania--with France and Albania just barely meeting it. In comparison, America's defense burden stands at 4.9% of GDP, or if war costs are subtracted, 3.6%.

Last February, while speaking at a conference about the upcoming Strategic Review, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued that allied "budget limitations relate to a larger cultural and political trend affecting the alliance. One of the triumphs of the last century was the pacification of Europe after ages of ruinous warfare. But . . . we have reached an inflection point, where much of the continent has gone too far in the other direction. The demilitarization of Europe . . . has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st."

Nor are things any better when it comes to the defense spending of the West's major allies in Asia. Japan's percentage of GDP going to the military hovers around 1% and Australia's is below 2%. In comparison, South Korea stands at approximately 2.8%. In the meantime, China's yearly double-digit increase in defense expenditures continues apace, while North Korea, unstable as ever, keeps adding to its nuclear stockpile.

Of course, GDP percentages do not reflect actual dollars. One percent of a large GDP, as in the case of Japan, is still a lot of money. Nor does it reflect whether allies, like Denmark and Australia, are willing to put actual boots on the ground and engage in combat. But GDP-percentage data does broadly reflect how serious a country is about national security, in that it suggests what burden the country and its leaders are willing to accept in order to help keep the peace, deter aggression and, if necessary, engage in conflict.

As Mr. Gates also noted, this seriousness-measure has for years not followed a favorable trend line. And if government announcements are accurate, the news on this front is getting worse. Later this month, the new Conservative-led government in the U.K. is expected to announce a 10% to 20% cut in Britain's military spending. France, which has already trimmed its forces substantially in recent years, is now also planning additional cuts. Given the potential size of the British drawdown and the fiscal crisis many European countries face, it is possible that by this time next year not a single NATO ally will be spending over 2% of its GDP on defense.

Of course, the U.S. is also facing fiscal problems, and the Obama administration would, over time, like to reduce America's defense burden as well. Mr. Gates has already cut more than $300 billion in planned military expenditures. Yet for now the administration's goal is to maintain a military force structure that was largely put in place by the Clinton Pentagon and reaffirmed by the Bush team--a force structure absolutely essential if the U.S. is going to fulfill its myriad global responsibilities and security tasks in the coming year.

Nonetheless, for Americans interested in maintaining close ties with democratic allies--for those who believe that such partnerships increase the legitimacy and sustainability of the U.S.'s own efforts--it is getting more and more difficult to ignore the decline in allied "hard power" in Europe. If America's allies want a say at the table when it comes to security matters and, more importantly, want to be listened to, they cannot assume that the U.S. will always pick up the check to maintain global order.

The hardest question for Atlanticists to answer these days from members of the U.S. Congress is why the defense burden should fall so much on American shoulders, and increasingly so.

No doubt, times are tough. The fact is, however, that Europe's decline in defense spending is directly related to an increase in social-welfare spending over the past two decades. Now, because budgets are squeezed, the allies' instinct is to look to defense expenditures as a source of savings. But this is a choice, not a necessity.

Two cents on the dollar hardly seems an exorbitant amount for free states to pay for the defense of peace and prosperity. And if this does seem like too much money, NATO countries might consider the costs of the alternative.

Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar and the director of Advanced Strategic Studies at AEI.

Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. James L. Yarboro

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