PARIS --- While US Defense Secretary Robert Gates certainly has a point about Europe’s insufficient defense spending, some of the assertions made by the New York Times in the same vein are disingenuous at best.
Regarding Afghanistan, and indeed Iraq, the US should not complain of insufficient European support. These wars were initiated by the US on false pretenses, using false or manipulated “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction and Al Queda infiltration, and most significantly of all against the advice of many allies, most memorably French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Washington can hardly now complain too loudly if the allies it so harshly criticized at the time (Rumsfeld’s dig about “old Europe,” for example) are not too keen to jump in to help Washington pull its chestnuts out of the fire.
Americans should thus be pleasantly surprised, and indeed grateful, that European allies sent 40,000 soldiers, at great expense in life (850 soldiers killed to date, as Gates noted) and treasure, to help Washington save the bacon it so recklessly risked in these foolish wars. And those 40,000 troops are twice as many as in 2006, so European allies are not shirking their responsibilities, on the contrary.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that NATO’s founding treaty makes it an obligation for all members to take up arms to defend another member that is attacked, but NATO solidarity cannot be invoked in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya as none of these states attacked the US. These are entirely voluntary operations in which European governments can choose to participate, or not, as they wish, with no legal or diplomatic obligation to assist or support US interventionism.
And it is again disingenuous to fault Germany, whose Afrika Korps famously fought there during WW II, and Turkey, a similarly Muslim country, for not taking part in air strikes against Libya.
Finally, if US defense spending has risen from 50 percent to 75 percent of the NATO total, it is largely because the Pentagon’s budget has more than doubled to pay for Afghanistan and Iraq, while European budgets have largely stagnated – or been reduced. Thus, the $1 trillion the US has squandered on these two wars can distort the reality of NATO spending.
But while their arguments are specious, the NYT and Gates do have a valid point: Europe spends too little on defense, and most European governments have plans in hand for even harsher cuts to military spending. But then they have always done so: in the mid-1970s, US President Jimmy Carter famously set a target of 3 percent of gross domestic product for NATO members to spend on defense.
As an aside, this raises an interesting point: if 3 percent of GDP was a valid target at the height of the cold war, is 2 percent of GDP a valid target at a time where NATO faces no military threat? Is the real issue that Europe doesn’t spend enough, or that it spends unwisely?
For many, it is the latter, but changing Europe’s realities is well-nigh impossible. To spend effectively, to get real bang for their bucks, European governments need to get serious about weapon standardization (do European armies really need to operate a dozen different types of wheeled armored vehicles?), to forget about “juste retour” in cooperative programs, to each specialize in some, but not all, industrial and military sectors, and to stop worrying how to favor national industry at the expense of national armed forces.
But any effort to rationalize Europe’s defense investments along these lines grinds to a halt when it runs into the reality of conflicting national industrial policies, of conflicting national interests, and indeed divergent defense policies. Europe needs a real shock to catalyze it into making the changes it needs.
So, the best action that the US could take vis-à-vis NATO and Europe is to make good on its long-standing threats to disengage, and thus force European governments to face the reality, and the consequences, of their reckless, long-standing cuts in defense spending.