NATO is moving to station Patriot missiles in Turkey along its border with Syria. But if war erupts, it won’t be the Europeans doing the fighting.
The organization is moving toward a first. With the Europeans continuing to shrink their militaries, it may eventually become an alliance without a military, at least an effective one.
From its start the organization has generated international dependency. While Europeans understandably concentrated on economic reconstruction after World War II, they proved little more ready to spend their money on their defense after they recovered. Throughout the Cold War — when there really was a threat to their security — the Europeans preferred to let Washington provide it.
At the time, the U.S. also carried a disproportionate defense burden in Asia, eventually adding the Middle East and even Central Asia to its long list of military responsibilities. So American officials routinely badgered their NATO allies to do more, but the Europeans just as routinely broke their promises to do so. It was almost as if Uncle Sam enjoyed being taken advantage of.
At least the trans-Atlantic alliance had a purpose during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the Warsaw Pact there was no longer the slightest chance that Moscow could dominate Europe, let alone Eurasia. The Europeans were capable of defending themselves against whatever dangers remained.
NATO should have transformed itself. America could have turned the alliance over to its European members. The Western Europeans then could have decided whether to add the newly freed Central and Eastern European nations. Washington and Brussels could have built a strong cooperative relationship to handle issues of genuine trans-Atlantic concern.
Instead, NATO’s organizational survival instincts took over. Its members decided to get involved in “out of area” activities, that is, controversies in which they had no direct interest. As a result, countries increasingly drag each other into conflicts that they would have better avoided. America ended up fighting in Kosovo, occupying Bosnia, and intervening in Libya for no good reason. The Europeans have spent more than a decade trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, democratic nation state, also without justification.
Yet NATO’s non-American combat capabilities continue to atrophy. The Europeans have essentially decided that it isn’t worth their while to have militaries capable of doing what militaries are supposed to do: fight wars.
A recent Brookings Institution report, “The Implications of Military Spending Cuts for NATO’s Largest Members,” highlights the problem. Before retiring, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates blasted the Europeans for doing so little as to court “collective military irrelevance.” NATO Secretary General and relentless cheerleader Anders Fogh Rasmussen nevertheless admitted: “if European defense spending cuts continue, Europe’s ability to be a stabilizing force even in its neighborhood will rapidly disappear.”
Several authors contributed to the paper. Admitted editor Clara Marina O’Donnell: “current military spending trends are reducing the ability of most NATO allies to contribute to international security.” Unless the Europeans change course — which seems unlikely — both Gates and Rasmussen will be proved right.
Christian Moelling, with the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, reviewed military efforts within the European Union. Cuts in military spending are pervasive, with smaller states making the largest reductions: 36 percent by Lithuania in 2010, 21 percent by Latvia in 2009, 19 percent in 2011 by Greece, 13 percent by Romania in 2010, 11 percent by Portugal in 2010, and 10 percent by both the Czech Republic and Ireland in 2011.
Of even greater concern are cutbacks by the larger nations upon which European efforts necessarily depend. Both Germany and Great Britain are planning an 8 percent cut in military outlays by 2015, though economic exigencies could accelerate and intensify the cuts.
Along with reductions in the budget have come cuts in the number of military personnel — down about 160,000 continent-wide from just 2009 to 2011. “The United Kingdom, one of Europe’s most important contributors of deployable troops, has been amongst those making significant personnel cuts,” said Moelling. Others are likely to follow suit.
Equipment procurement, too, faces significant cutbacks. Governments are delaying acquisition of equipment, reducing order size, retiring weapons early, and reselling equipment. Explained Moelling: “The largest equipment cuts have taken place in small and medium-size EU states, some of which have canceled entire military capabilities. For example, the Netherlands and Denmark are eliminating their main battle tanks. Denmark is also getting rid of its submarines and land-based air defense.”
With U.S. officials determined to maintain an outsize military despite the enormous cost to the U.S. economy, the disparity between American and European capabilities continues to grow. For instance, Washington modernizes its forces more often, “leading many to suggest that NATO was already a multi-tier alliance,” noted Moelling. Increasingly, the Europeans won’t be capable of doing much of anything serious when it comes to war.
Despite manifold deficiencies of their militaries, European governments still have been able to support peacekeeping operations — until now. However, warned Moelling, “Several European countries have already started withdrawing their troops from multinational operations in order to save money.” As the militaries of smaller nations dwindle to nothingness, the alliance will place increasing responsibility on larger European nations even though they are reducing their forces as well.
The negative cycle seems destined to accelerate. With Europe in economic crisis, there is ever less public support for foreign expeditions, warned Moelling. Indeed: “At a time of significant financial hardship, some may raise difficult questions about the legitimacy of such militaries, and others might even begin to question the merit of having armed forces at all.” Despite the dream of European elites to turn the European Union into a Weltmacht to compete with the U.S. and China on the global stage, the continent increasingly seems destined for geopolitical irrelevance.
After all, even Europe’s stalwarts are cutting their militaries. Andrew Dorman of King’s College in London wrote about the United Kingdom, considered to be America’s most faithful ally. Two years ago the new coalition government announced a four-year real reduction of 7.5 percent in military outlays, but, noted Dorman, “in reality defense spending has dropped by nearly 25 percent” due to a shift in financing of new nuclear submarines and over-commitments by the previous Labour government.
Manpower of 104,000 is slated to fall to 82,000 to 84,000 by 2020. The number of different weapons platforms and number of units acquired will drop essentially across-the-board. Concluded Dorman: “The reductions in the armed forces will have a significant impact on Britain’s ability to project and sustain military power.” The only silver lining in the dark cloud is that Britain’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will restore a limited ability to intervene, but on a smaller scale, with a longer response time, and over a less extended period.
France joins Britain at the top of Europe’s military hierarchy. Determined to maintain an independent global presence, French military outlays dropped just .6 percent in real terms from 2002 to 2011. Although Paris has cut the number of military personnel, it professionalized its force.
But all good things must come to an end. Financial constraints forced Paris to reduce its planned spending from 2009 to 2014 by three percent. Moreover, noted Camille Grand of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique: “it will become increasingly difficult for Paris to meet the 2013-2017 budgetary increases envisaged in France’s 2008 defense strategy.” Indeed, with the Socialist Party taking control of the French presidency and parliament, “it is widely assumed that significant military spending cuts will be introduced.”
Grand figured military outlays could fall short of current targets by about 10 percent annually. Almost inevitable are a smaller force and a reduced ability to intervene abroad. Moreover, such a change would essentially end the fantasy of a continental military. Grand warned of the possibility of “abandoning the cause of EU defense cooperation: France would no longer be in a position to sustain its long standing efforts to turn the EU into a leading player in global security with autonomous military capabilities.”
Most important for the U.S., with a reduced military capability France is likely to become another shameless defense “free-rider.” Observed Grand: “Like most other Europeans, France risks relying on the U.S. to address global crises.” Surprise, surprise!
Germany, despite its storied (though at times discreditable) military history, is a lesser military power than Britain and France. Its military cuts so far have been less draconian than Britain’s but, reported Bastian Giegerich of the Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences, budget concerns are driving reductions which “are likely to accelerate in the period 2014-2016.”
While the government hopes to maintain “the broadest spectrum of military capabilities possible,” it will be reducing force and equipment levels across-the-board. Moreover, this approach means “a reduced ability to sustain troops for long deployments abroad.” With the end of conscription, which should increase the quality of Berlin’s armed forces, personnel levels are falling. The positive is that Germany currently is able to sustain no more than 8,000 of the 14,000 that it claims to be deployable for international crises; ongoing reforms are supposed to bump that up to a still paltry 10,000.
However, these are not likely to be the last cuts. The government is pushing to renegotiate existing procurement contracts, with the threat to reduce research and development on new capabilities if companies refuse. That may not be enough. The Euro crisis continues to expand with Berlin expected to bankroll any and all rescue efforts. The squeeze on German finances will worsen even if the country avoids the recession which has hit many of its neighbors.
The study includes a review of American military spending. Washington’s outlays almost inevitably will fall too. President Barack Obama appears to accept the impossibility of maintaining America’s current outsize outlays, nearly half of the world’s military expenditures.
Adam Grissom of the RAND Corporation predicted that coming reductions will lead to additional personnel withdrawals and base closures in Europe. He argued that the actual cost of basing American units in Europe is small, but his analysis ignores the cost of raising the units. Commitments require force structure. If Washington is going to protect Europe from unknown threats and garrison the continent forever, the U.S. must maintain a larger military. The cost of raising those units is part of America’s NATO cost.
Nevertheless, he correctly contended that the basic issue is one of strategy, a “fundamental decision to cease being a global power altogether,” as he put it, or, more accurately in my view, to stop attempting to micro-manage the world. Being a global power does not require forever subsidizing the defense of those capable of protecting themselves. It certainly does not require doing so when those capable of doing so don’t believe there is any reason to do so. Some Europeans don’t believe there is anything they need to defend against. Others believe that America always will step in if such a need emerges. It doesn’t matter which opinion predominates: the effect is the same.
The Brookings Institution report demonstrates that the Europeans are moving away from even the pretense of maintaining capable militaries. The authors are strong advocates of a relevant Europe, but have no solution to offer. For instance, Christian Moelling admitted: “It will not be feasible for most NATO allies to increase their military spending in the years to come.”
Not, of course, that they don’t have the money. They could make more cuts elsewhere, but their publics will not allow them to do so. Instead, he argued that the European states should work together more efficiently, ignoring sovereignty concerns. However, despite years of discussing a common foreign and defense policy backed by a pan-European military, virtually nothing has been achieved — other than adding an inconsequential EU “foreign minister” with more bureaucracy than power.
This won’t change while Americans allow the Europeans to free ride. As long as Uncle Sam is willing to play Uncle Sucker, the Europeans will be happy to play along. The only sensible response for Washington is to say no more. The U.S. government should defend America, not the rest of the world. Washington should cooperate with friendly states, including the Europeans, when shared interests are at stake. But no more unnecessary wars, like Libya. No more nation-building in Europe, like Kosovo.
After more than six decades, Europe should take responsibility for its own security, whatever happens in Syria. The Europeans should decide whether they feel threatened and respond accordingly, making whatever trade-offs prove necessary between economic revival and military security. And then Europe should live with the results. But that will happen only if Americans push their populous and prosperous friends off of America’s defense dole.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).
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