The June NATO summit has come and gone and the usual commentaries have been written, mostly celebrating the Biden administration’s recommitment to the alliance. The allies discussed yet again how to manage future threats, how to deal with China and Russia, how to develop a more effective burden-sharing approach, and announced the decision to develop NATO’s new Strategic Concept to replace the current 2010 document in time for the next summit in 2022. And yet the most important piece was never addressed: the urgent need to ditch the much-discussed commitment for each ally to spend at least 2% of its GDP on defense, undertaken at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales.
In hindsight, the Wales “2% pledge” has achieved exactly the opposite of what it was intended to accomplish, namely reassure the Eastern flank allies in the face of the Russian seizure of Crimea and continued aggression against Ukraine that the Article 5 guarantees still have teeth. First, the decision to reach the 2% threshold within a decade of the declaration has communicated loudly and clearly that, notwithstanding condemnations of Russian aggression and pledges of allied solidarity, defense spending continues to rank at the bottom of allied priorities in Europe. More importantly, the pledge did not address the fundamental problem that European NATO faces today, i.e., a glaring lack of real, exercised, and usable military capabilities that could be fielded in a crisis. To put it differently, percentages of GDP spent on defense are meaningless without looking at the structure of individual defense budgets. For instance, in Italy personnel costs are the lion’s share of the defense budget, three times as much as is spent on procurement and four times as much as Italy spends on operations and maintenance.
There has clearly been no sense of urgency, especially among Western European NATO allies, to deliver on the Wales pledge even in the most rudimentary numerical terms. Case in point: in a November 2019 speech to the Bundeswehr University in Munich, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer pledged to boost defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2031, well behind NATO’s agreed upon 2024 target date. For now, Germany would try to reach 1.5% of GDP by 2024 (at the height of the Cold War Germany spent 5% of its GDP on defense, had a large draft-based military, and was host to annual REFORGER exercises).
The credibility of Article 5 is not only about political will; it is also first and foremost about the basics of the thirty allied armed forces being able to work together. And yet, with very few exceptions, European militaries today are seriously under-equipped and non-deployable. As the U.S. military program to create a cross-domain Joint Force by 2035 gathers speed, if Europe does not invest in next-generation systems, the majority of European NATO allies will simply not be interoperable with the U.S. military. This would make a mockery of Article 5 for the United States can defend Europe only if its armed forces are able to work with those of its allies and partners.
After three decades of European de facto disarmament, there should be a new urgency to restoring the continent’s military capabilities. The United States armed forces today are no longer structured to fight two major theater wars and a secondary theater campaign. Two decades of military campaigns in MENA and elsewhere have depleted our power and reformatted our armed forces, which are now structured to fight in one major theater and one secondary action. There is a serious storm brewing in the Indo-Pacific, with a possible kinetic engagement between the United States and China in the not-so-distant future. If our European allies refuse to resource their defense, Russia is likely to wait until most U.S. assets, save for high-end strategic enablers, are in Asia and blackmail and extort Europe, or worse. Were this to happen the entire transatlantic community would be the loser.
It is time for plain talk with our European allies and clear-headed decisions: The 2% Wales pledge needs to be abandoned, for it has been little more than a political fig leaf for the majority of European governments to claim that they are “doing something.” Instead, NATO needs to agree to assign each European member state the task of fielding specific military capabilities that can be plugged into an overarching operational plan. There needs to be a clear timeline that each country must adhere to, and force development progress stages must be clearly identified and accepted. Next, there needs to be a NATO-wide consensus on which vital infrastructure hubs must be protected (China’s recent acquisitions of key port facilities in Europe are a clear and present danger to the alliance’s ability to reinforce in a crisis), and on bringing up the existing highway, bridge and rail networks up to the requisite standards. Compared to the Cold War, today our trailers are bigger, our tanks are heavier, and most of all access to shipping has lagged behind what is needed.
NATO has a decision to make: Either continue with the 2% of GDP pledge and the usual bromides about allied solidarity or get serious about what the alliance needs the most, namely real exercised pluggable military capabilities that by their very nature will ensure that deterrence in Europe holds, regardless of what does or does not happen in Asia. There is a cliché that war is too important to be left to the military, but in this case, it is high time that Europe’s politicians start listening to their militaries.
Andrew A. Michta, now a 1945 Contributing Editor, is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
July 12, 2021 at 10:34 am
Obviously, if they won’t do 2 percent, they won’t do this either. What the article doesn’t address is what the US should do when nation’s like Germany continue to shirk their responsibilities and take advantage of the US. Otherwise, this article is just more of the same hot air we have been getting for decades now.
July 12, 2021 at 4:52 pm
I like your plan to give NATO allies specific requirements for upgrading their militaries. It would help make sure NATO had what was necessary for it’s defense.
However, I think they probably wouldn’t even comply with this.
Other countries take advantage of the US. They use the money not spent on the military to fund other priorities. The US could do the same if we didn’t have to spend as much for defending NATO and a continent thousands of miles from the US.
Trump was right to call them out. They have the most to lose with Russian aggression and should take a more significant role in their OWN defense.
July 13, 2021 at 9:17 am
If Afghanistan should have taught us anything it is that it is an exercise in pointlessness to try to defend people who lack the will to defend themselves.
July 13, 2021 at 10:41 am
I work in an international organization that employs many retired European army officers, almost all from NATO countries. In our many conversations about military readiness, almost all my colleagues agree that their armed forces field only token combat-ready forces, or, truly, none at all. The majority of European forces today busy themselves with administrative tasks, attend seminars, write papers, go on vacation, etc. In the event of war, my colleagues hope the U.S. response would give their countries time enough to mobilize in some meaningful way.
July 13, 2021 at 1:28 pm
Got a better idea.
The Warsaw Pact is gone. NATO has outlived its usefulness.
Close it down and let the Euroweenies take care of their own defense. Or not.
They’re not worth defending anyway.
Maybe Poland and Hungry are worth defending, but logistics for that are nearly impossible.
July 13, 2021 at 8:37 pm
Admit that NATO is dead as presently constituted. The only hope is to bring in Russia to herd the cats and for the US to leave. Russia is weak and is in no shape to oppose China. Give them the Euroweenies and see if they can give them a backbone. That leaves the US, China, Russia/Europe and eventually India as the world powers. If we keep NATO, we end up facing China alone.
July 13, 2021 at 9:59 pm
Democracies evolve over 70+ years to have different ideas and directions.
If Europe doesn’t value NATO, scrap it now. Bring the U.S. troops home and turn the bases back over to the Europeans. Let the Europeans have the defense they desire and are willing to pay for. The U.S., continuing to pay for rich Europe’s defense, is a world class schmuck.
July 14, 2021 at 9:45 am
Russia has a GDP significantly smaller than Italy now, and we know what bad shape Italy is in. If the Europeans don’t want us, and don’t want to pay their fair share, we need to leave NATO to the Europeans and prepare for the war that could end us–China.
July 14, 2021 at 12:20 pm
The German public is, generally, anti-American. The German government takes advantage of the US by letting the American taxpayer fund most of Germany’s defense. We are suckers. We should stop paying to defend a country which refuses to defend itself and makes energy deals with the country we are supposed to be confronting. We are being played for fools.
July 14, 2021 at 4:02 pm
N. A. T. O. = North Atlantic Terror Organization.
NATO in 1999 attacked defenceless civilians in the town of Nis in the former Yugoslavia with cluster bombs killing and maiming people who were trying to get on with their everyday lives.
Why did NATO attacked them?
The attacks were carried out to help the Kosovo Liberation Army a known terrorist outfit that did money laundering, drugs, organ trafficking, torture, executions and secret dealings with Islamist organizations fron Turkey, Iran, the Caucasus, north Africa, and the oil-rich gulf sheikhdoms.
July 18, 2021 at 12:41 pm
Can someone explain, what is the point for NATO countries implementing 2% GDP and invest billions of dollars in next-generation weapon systems etc. to defend themselves against Ruski and at the same time feed the beast by gazdollars (Germany and NS&NS2)? D. Trump was very right. It just doesnt make sense.
September 22, 2021 at 4:39 pm
The 2% of GDP amounts to resources to train, equip, and exercise militaries. But there is another significant reason to raise defense expenditures. Professional militaries need to retain its best people– careerists who develop and maintain the proficiencies needed to deploy, sustain, and employ large forces (bigger than company size). Keeping pay low will cause the best officers and enlisted to leave the service for higher paying jobs. Then, even the best equipment will not solve the problem.
President Trump was right to call out the EU for its failure to support NATO with well resourced personnel. And it was working. Now ten countries have hit 2% and defense spending was up 4.3% in 2020 over the previous year. Now is not the time to abandon 2%.