Going forward, every NATO member state must step up and carry its share of the burden.
— President Barack Obama, March 26, 2014
On Wednesday, addressing an assembly of young Europeans, President Obama issued a challenge. Faced with a resurgent Russia, he said, and in view of the shaky global economy, Europeans must spend more on defense.
His sentiment is well founded. Let’s be clear: EU defense spending is woefully inadequate. Excluding Britain, France, Germany, and perhaps Italy, the EU states are fundamentally incapable of full-spectrum operations. And the military of America’s greatest ally, the British, is being forced down the same path.
As the Wall Street Journal noted on Monday, out of all EU members, only Britain spends 2 percent of GDP on defense. France is tailing around the 1.9 percent mark. And what about Europe’s strongest economy, Germany?
Angela Merkel’s conservative government is allocating 1.3 percent of GDP to defense.
That figure speaks volumes about European defense doctrine — one of casual disinterest, a box to be ticked rather than a responsibility to be met.
As I see it, there are two distinct causes for this disinterest: the political and the philosophical.
At the political level, there’s no question that most Europeans see defense spending as a low priority. When stacked up against government-provided health care, for example, defense spending lacks tangible benefits. Indeed, the European Left is expert at manipulating this understanding by offering a populist choice: “Why buy bombers to kill foreigners, when you can have a new hospital and save Europeans?” It may be intellectually vapid, but it’s definitely catchy.
It’s also hard to deny the European Left’s success in framing broader spending debates. Visit the EU and you’ll find that there’s one policy area that consistently finds wide support — the welfare state. As I’ve made clear on a number of occasions, welfare states are fatally flawed. But even conservative EU leaders won’t seriously cut welfare in order to invest in defense.
This can be seen not just in Merkel’s government, but also in David Cameron’s Conservative-led U.K. government. To address a ballooning deficit, Cameron has cut spending on defense, but protected education, health care, and foreign aid.
This reality leads us to the second consideration — philosophy. If you’re ever in London or Paris and can get a few intelligent Europeans away from the prying ears of their fellow citizens, you’ll find that a good number of them recognize America’s instrumental role in the world. This is especially true at times like these, when Europeans are reminded that keeping a dismal past from returning calls for resolve alongside proper values.
Nevertheless, when the immediate dangers recede and Europeans can return to more comfortable pontifications — perhaps over a pint of ale, a glass of wine, or a weizen of weizenbier — the demands of maintaining this resolve suddenly seem less palatable.
It’s in these moments that the willful neglect of political reality finds rationalizations in philosophy. Given a choice between acknowledging global threats that demand countering, and imagining a world amenable to respectful diplomacy, the latter understanding triumphs. When Europeans feel secure, laying the world’s ills on American “neo-imperialism” or “bullying” is the reflexive easy option. In these moments, Europeans like to pretend that peace can be won through “soft power” and “multilateral moralism” alone.
Below the surface of this popular myth, EU leaders retain false confidence in something else: the belief that America will continue to bear the burden — forever, if necessary, and alone, if necessary. And that’s a very dangerous delusion.
Because Putin and company see a different America.
Cognizant of Obama’s distaste for foreign entanglements and witnessing the rise of Republicans like Rand Paul, the agents of authoritarianism realize that Americans of all views are sick of unequal responsibility. Propelled by their own lust for power, they sense an opening in this vacuum.
Ukraine today; . . . tomorrow?