By Dr John Hemmings
While it’s easy to point to President Trump and criticise his gauche approach or roll one’s eyes at his lack of diplomatic finesse at this week’s NATO Summit, there was much to his complaint. As US defence spending accounts now for 73% of total NATO spending, the fact is he is not the first American to complain about this issue of burden-sharing.
Former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates gave a speech in 2011 in which he called himself the “latest in a string of US Defence Secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defence spending.” In other words, the US has asked before, nicely. And they made a commitment to reach the 2% of GDP target in Wales following Russia’s illegal take-over of the Crimea in 2014. However, NATO European defence spending has dropped from 1.55% in 2011 to 1.46% of GDP this year. And we know that Germany’s 0.5% increase in defence spending is at a slower pace than the growing economy, which might see it fall as a percent of GDP.
While it might seem as though the problem is with a populist America First, there is more to this than just Trump – though his rhetoric obscures it. The problem is really with the disconnect between European civilisation and the need for security, a disconnect that began with the post-War period and which has continued to this year. It partially stems from the “never again” malaise that afflicted the continent after the war and from from the optimism within European society that institutions can manage all conflict peacefully. The most dangerous result of this malaise is a cynicism about nationalism and the state’s role in defence.
Despite very similar core values around democracy, liberalism and human rights, Europeans are unwilling to fight for these beliefs. And this isn’t just armchair opining. A Gallup poll taken in 2015 found that only 25% of Western Europeans were willing to wage war. This wasn’t just low in comparison to the US (44%) or Canada (30%), it was low compared to Africa (56%), East Asia (71%) and the Middle East (84%). In a time when the West may have to fight to uphold the liberal parts of the rules-based order, figures like this do not bode well.
Nor are Europeans willing to die for each other, even inside NATO. A 2015 poll showed that while 56% of Americans were willing to wage war in defence of their fellow NATO allies, few European states felt the same. Germany, a country whose very entry into NATO has been a source of much debate and alliance angst, has the worst showing, with only 38% of the public evincing willingness to fight for their fellow allies. When Jagoda Marinić wrote after Trump’s election that Germany is “coming to understand its role in standing up for liberal democracy in a world turning more and more authoritarian”, it showed little appreciation for blood and treasure, two pillars to any alliance.
While we should be worried, NATO has always been under duress, European political leaders have to step up to the plate and engage in the necessary debates with their publics. They cannot buckpass for ever.
From its earliest days to the present day, NATO has suffered a great many political crises, from early US challenges to Article 5, to Iceland’s call for the removal of US forces from its territory in 1956, to France’s withdrawal from the NATO military headquarters, SHAPE, in 1965. Despite these challenges, the world’s most long-lasting alliance has managed to muddle through.
Dr John Hemmings is Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society.