Germany Must Meet Its Obligation to NATO

German chancellor Angela Merkel in 2016 (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
It can afford to spend more on defense, and it should.

At its 2006 summit in Latvia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) established a rule that member states should spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. At NATO’s 2014 summit in Wales, the member countries reiterated their commitment to that benchmark, with those countries that were falling short agreeing to reach it by 2024. In 2017, only five member countries other than the U.S. were estimated to contribute 2 percent of their GDP to NATO: Greece, Estonia, the United Kingdom, Romania, and Poland. Lagging behind, at only 1.2 percent of GDP, was Germany.

The question of whether Germany will live up to its NATO commitment is now in doubt because of differences between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and its coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which is Germany’s second-strongest political force. The CDU views 2 percent of GDP as a binding obligation, and Merkel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen have both vowed to to meet it by 2024. But nearly doubling defense spending in the next six years could still be a bridge too far for the SDP, which, though it believes the Bundeswehr should be better equipped, rejects the 2 percent benchmark as both unnecessary and unrealistic.

In this, the SDP is mistaken. With a GDP of more than $3.4 trillion, Germany is Europe’s largest economy and the fourth largest in the world. If a small country such as Estonia can find the resources to meet its NATO obligation, Germany certainly can do the same.

This is not to say that Germany doesn’t contribute to NATO. In fact, it is the second-largest contributor (after the U.S.) to the alliance’s budgets and programs, paying nearly 15 percent of the cost while the U.S. pays 22 percent. But as Europe’s largest economy, it should be setting an example for the rest of the continent to follow. After all, the NATO alliance is supposed to be about collective defense. To make that work, every country must contribute equitably. If Germany isn’t paying its fair share, why should other European countries feel compelled to do so?

According to NATO, its European members spent $242 billion on defense in 2017, or $94 billion less than if they’d all met the 2 percent benchmark. Germany was responsible for some $30 billion of that $94 billion shortfall, once again forcing the country that spent the most — the United States, at $683 billion — to pick up the slack, despite the fact that NATO exists primarily to protect Europe.

During the Cold War, with the looming threat of the Soviet Union at Europe’s doorstep, there was good reason for the United States to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden of defending the continent, which was key to American national security. But that was than and this is now. Together, our NATO allies boast a GDP greater than ours. It should no longer be up to the American taxpayer to pick up the tab for wealthy European allies. Germany and the other NATO countries need to take primary responsibility for defending Europe, not just because that is their obligation to the alliance, but because it is their obligation to their own peoples. As Secretary of Defense Mattis told the other members of the alliance last year, “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do.”


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