Now maybe I still have a Cold War mentality (unlikely as I was born in 1988), but I feel that US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates’ resentful words on the future of NATO last week should be taken as a dire warning to the governments of the UK and other members of the organisation. His argument, although not new, was that European members have neglected defence spending since the end of the Cold War, resulting in a severe capability gap that only the US can fill.
President Eisenhower once argued that “Because we had our troops there, the Europeans had not done their share… They won’t make the sacrifice to provide the soldiers for their own defences.” These words have been echoed in recent decades by academics such as John Mearshimer, who has argued that America’s substantial military forces based in Europe have acted as a pacifier to preserve European peace. Despite this history of criticism, the renewed concern is backed by the numbers.
In the Cold War the US presence was a necessity for their Cold War strategy. During those years NATO defence spending was split 50:50 between the US and other members. However, since the end of the Cold War the European share has fallen such that the ratio is now 75:25 in the US favour. In the eyes of many commentators stateside, the protection afforded to NATO members by the US has caused many to cut defence spending in favour of an increased welfare state, at a cost to the US taxpayer and their relatively poor welfare system.
Afghanistan was NATO’s first ground-war deployment and despite the demanding and costly mission, total European defence spending has declined by 15% since 9/11. Despite possessing 2 million uniformed troops European NATO members have struggled to support the deployment of 25-40,000 troops with the helicopters, transport aircraft and intelligence support they require. Decades of chronic underfunding of the military and the focus of resources on Afghanistan have pushed military modernisation to the side, with the effects now being seen in Libya. After 11 weeks of operations, against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country, many of the European powers are beginning to run short of munitions or are standing on the side-lines. Not, it must be said, because of a lack of political will, but because of a lack of capability.
This chronic underfunding has to be reversed. NATO members are required to spend 2% of their GDP on defence. Out of 28 NATO members only 5 spend more than 2%. Iceland spends 0%. NATO has provided many members with a false sense of security and an expectation that the US will always be there to protect them. With the $680 billion US defence budget under increasing pressure back home and a move of US strategic interests towards Asia, the security of Europe will become much less of a priority to the United States. Without a significant reversal of European attitudes towards defence spending, what is left of the world’s most powerful military alliance could find itself unable and ill-equipped to handle to any crises that may emerge on its doorstep.