Should Europeans spend more on defence?
That European allies should spend more on defense instead of relying on America’s military might is the standard refrain of most US administrations, regardless of political party.
Last week in Brussels, the new secretary of defense James Mattis warned that the US might “moderate” its commitment to Nato unless Europeans get on track towards meeting the target of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defence, a theme echoed by vice-president Mike Pence at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.
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It is not an unreasonable request. Only four of Nato’s European members (Greece, UK, Estonia, and Poland) currently meet the 2-percent target. The response of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to Mattis was that Europeans are somehow making up for that deficit through their humanitarian and development assistance budgets, which is an amusing thought.
Yet, there is also a dark side to a hypothetical beefing-up of Europe’s militaries. America’s dominance of Nato, and Europe’s apparent free-riding, has brought one significant benefit. Namely, there has been a taming of the regional rivalries that had long existed between European countries and had periodically devastated the continent. If land warfare between Europe’s democracies has become unthinkable, this is to say that it is unthinkable primarily in the literal, practical sense. There is no capacity to fight any such war: not enough men in uniforms, tanks, guns, or airplanes.
A Europe that takes care of its own security without “free riding” on the United States would likely see traditional rivalries return. For instance, by bringing its defence spending a bit above two percent of GDP, Germany would outspend Russia and become the fourth-largest military power in the world.
There are some good reasons to believe that this would be a good thing. Yet, it is far from obvious as to whether Germany’s neighbours and partners in Europe would be thrilled by this prospect. Think about the tensions already existing in the EU.
Some have blamed Germany, rightly or wrongly, for imposing austerity on economies in the Eurozone’s Mediterranean periphery. Central European countries such as Hungary or Slovakia, in turn, soured to Berlin's leadership following chancellor Angela Merkel’s “welcome” extended to Syrian asylum seekers in September 2015.
These disputes might have been heated, but they were still largely amicable. But what would the stand-off over Greek debt or the EU’s asylum policies look like if Germany were not just an economic powerhouse but also wielded real military might? How would it shape the country’s relations with the Czech Republic, which expelled two and a half million ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland after World War II? And what about with Poland?
Nobody is suggesting that a Germany that spends 2 percent of its GDP on defense would become a threat to its neighbours. But a more powerful Germany would almost certainly make other European countries – some of which dislike the country's real or imagined domination of the EU – more nervous. It could induce them to form new alliances, including with illiberal and revisionist regimes, most prominently Russia.
Europe holds an almost limitless list of contested territories, expulsions of ethnic groups, and other historic grievances. But nearly all have been dormant for decades. That period coincides with America’s dominant position within Nato and its investment into Europe’s multilateral political infrastructure, which has grown into the form of today’s EU.
Need to be careful
None of this is to suggest that Europeans should expect America to keep them safe in perpetuity. With the growing threat from Russia and in light of both US public opinion and the direction taken by the current presidential administration, it is simply no longer an option. Yet if Europeans are to spend more on defense, they need be careful to do it in a way that does not resuscitate the continent’s old demons.
That leaves European democracies with only one option: to pursue defense and security policies jointly, at the European level. For that, the EU needs to be reformed and strengthened to create a lean federal polity, which is dedicated to providing a small number of Europe-wide public goods, including defense, and integration with Nato.
If Donald Trump’s administration is serious about inducing its European partners to “pay their share,” it should do everything in its power to support the European project, instead of cozying up to those who seek to destroy it.
Otherwise, any attempt to make Europeans pay more for defense runs the risk of plunging the continent into conflict – conflict that was the destructive rule, not the exception, for centuries before the era of Pax Americana.
Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.