Chancellor Angela Merkel, campaigning at a Munich beer garden this Memorial Day weekend, certainly delighted American citizens as they paused to remember their sacred war dead, including the 236,000 men who died in Europe’s 20th-century wars. “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days,” Merkel said. “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” Although Merkel meekly attempted to walk her initial statement back in the face of American complaints, she clearly intended it as a forceful response to the tongue-lashing the American president, Donald J. Trump, gave alliance members regarding their low levels of defense spending during their meeting at NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels last week.
Such a statement by the German chancellor would normally be viewed with concern by members of the American foreign-policy and national-security establishments, who view the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a cornerstone of the post-war global order. But coming from Merkel, it was the height of arrogance.
Germany and the other European members of NATO have chronically underfunded the alliance for the past generation, as their defense spending dropped precipitously from an already low average range of 2–4 percent of GDP in 1991 to 1.2–2.5 percent today. Europe has spent the past 25 years focused on growing its social safety net and attracting new immigrants to offset lower birth rates, rather than on the more traditional threats to its east. Merkel’s Germany, the largest and most robust economy in Europe with a GDP of $3.8 trillion, could be contributing significantly to the alliance’s defense if it met the 2 percent of GDP defense-spending goal established at NATO’s Wales Summit in 2014. Instead, Merkel’s Ministry of Defense expends a miserly 1.2 percent of GDP, which ranks 16th among the alliance’s 28 member states.
A lot of ink has been spilled decrying President Trump’s failure to verbally commit the United States to the NATO Article V statement that an attack upon one alliance member shall be considered an attack upon all. This is troubling, especially since the only time that Article V has actually been invoked, it was on behalf of the United States, following the 9/11 attacks. This was a lost opportunity for Trump, to be sure. However, it should also be understood that many NATO members do not agree on meaning of Article V itself, which states that if an alliance member is attacked, each member state of the alliance will take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” Many members have made it known that in the event of an attack their responses could range from a diplomatic note to a declaration of war. The United States has been one of the few members of the alliance to consistently state that it considers a military response to be its primary option in an Article V scenario.
The basic truth is that NATO leaders simply haven’t found the topic of their own security to be all that important. This is not true of the U.S. population, which still generally supports NATO and its mission. Nevertheless, President Trump’s skepticism of NATO also reflects the doubts of many Americans. While 80 percent of the nation backs NATO, 31 percent of the Republican party, which controls both houses of Congress and the White House, either opposes the alliances or remains ambivalent.
So while European leaders visibly snicker behind the back of an American president as he asks them to get at least halfway to the 4 percent of GDP that America spends on defense, a troubling question looms: Why should Americans care about protecting our European allies if European citizenries themselves do not support the military defense of member states against Russia in the event that Article V is invoked? There are vast tidal forces of history at work in the world today, some that can be controlled and some that cannot. Continuing to shirk commitments to one’s own defense with the expectation that the U.S. will foot the bill instead is the wrong way to engender continued transatlantic respect and friendship.
In that light, Merkel’s weekend statement was not helpful. Europeans should realize that Americans have long harbored an inherent inclination toward non-interventionism or outright isolationism. Domestic concern with the growth of the American debt has placed unprecedented fiscal constraints on defense spending, and it’s increasingly hard to rally support for an alliance that seems uninterested in helping itself. Given these fiscal realities, the United States would not take much convincing to cut back on its own defense spending and withdraw from its alliance commitments. Our NATO allies should realize that if they don’t quickly move to meet their 2 percent commitment, they might not be able to count on the U.S. to bail them out for much longer.