National Security & Defense

Why Germany’s Failure to Meet Its NATO Spending Goal Matters

German soldiers at the Kaserne Hochstaufen infantry barracks in Bad Reichenhall, Germany, in 2016. (Michaela Rehle/Reiters)
The U.S. needs its European allies to pull their own weight in defense.

Like most NATO member states, Germany does not keep its alliance pledge to put 2 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) toward defense spending, and Berlin does not intend to change that any time soon. Within the next few years, it will raise defense spending to 1.3 or at most 1.5 percent of GDP, up from 2017’s 1.13 percent. The full 2 percent, however, is not on the agenda.

Absent NATO membership, this spending decision would be Germany’s business alone. If 2 percent of GDP is more than Germans want or need to spend on their military to achieve their security goals, then good luck and let them have it. But as a NATO member, Germany’s failure to keep its promise has broader consequences, particularly for the alliance’s credibility and U.S. foreign policy.

Because other NATO states — particularly large, wealthy allies such as Germany — do not meet the obligations of the alliance, NATO has shifted from a mutual-defense pact to an American subsidy of European security. While American taxpayers devote nearly $2,000 per capita to military spending each year — double the 2 percent of GDP benchmark — European NATO members average less than $500 in per capita defense spending, instead directing resources to domestic programs, including Europe’s substantial social-welfare state.

At $521 per capita, Germany is remarkable mainly for its comparative wealth and import: Germany failing to meet the 2 percent target will have a greater impact than, say, Iceland or Bulgaria. A few states do hit 2 percent, though with the exception of the United Kingdom, they are generally small or poorer countries such as Estonia and Greece that can offer little real mutual defense to the United States. Other NATO members are ostensibly on track to meet the 2 percent goal by 2025, but the hope that those promises are kept is not a solid basis for American decision-making. A lot could change in the next seven years.

Meanwhile, Pentagon spending is too inefficient and wasteful, and the U.S. military is stretched thin with redundant bases and nuclear weapons deployed across Europe — decades after the continent recovered from World War II and survived the Cold War, becoming perfectly capable of pulling its own weight in defense. To be sure, NATO slacking is only partly to blame for the excess and dysfunction in U.S. military spending and operations. But this imbalance is not without consequences, for all NATO spending is not created equal. The same alliance-wide total spending will produce different results depending on how it is allotted among NATO members.

When an ally such as Germany takes responsibility for its own defense, its government can make decisions informed by localized knowledge of security concerns and commitments. Furthermore, because NATO’s European states are individually significantly smaller than the U.S. in both population and economic power, self-responsibility encourages prioritization: Without the United States subsidizing its day-to-day defense needs, Berlin would be forced to make a serious analysis of what is necessary to German defense and what is reckless or unconnected to its vital national interests.

Likewise, a leaner, more accountable Pentagon budget which doesn’t provide for European security could push Washington to reexamine and reorder its priorities. Valuable U.S. resources would be saved if our European allies shared the defense burden in their own backyard. (Of course, vigilance would be necessary to ensure the funds saved would not be diverted to unnecessary or detrimental federal projects back home.)

A strategy that accounts for today’s reality, including that Europe collectively outpaces the U.S. in terms of GDP and population alike, would produce better foreign policy on both sides of the pond, eschewing unnecessary conflict, nation-building projects, and other over-extensions of limited resources, which are at best unnecessary and more often counterproductive to appropriate defense goals.

President Trump is right to complain about European NATO members’ infidelity to their military spending goals — other presidents before him shared the same concerns. But as with his predecessors, rhetoric alone will not change Europe’s behavior. A better approach would entail modernizing the United States’ relationship to NATO on a broader scale, increasing Europe’s involvement and shifting more responsibility onto those wealthy allies to patrol their own region.

“Collectively, the Europeans don’t need U.S. troops or dollars, both of which are in short supply anyway and needed elsewhere,” wrote military historian and veteran Andrew Bacevich in 2009 in an analysis that remains tellingly relevant almost a decade later. “Yet as long as the United States sustains the pretense that Europe cannot manage its own affairs, the Europeans will endorse that proposition, letting Americans foot most of the bill. Only if Washington makes it clear that the era of free-riding has ended will Europe grow up.”

Washington should pursue policies that force Europe to ramp up its investment and commitment to NATO.

Reform of U.S.–NATO engagement should entail a recognition that Europe is more than equipped for self-defense, particularly if the 2 percent goal is met. The continent’s considerable might and wealth — Italy alone boasts a larger GDP than Russia — is a powerful deterrent against any plausible conventional threat, and a shrewd approach to diplomacy offers further insurance against attack. NATO would also be well served by an intentional shift to a defensive posture. As German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said while serving as foreign minister in 2016, the “one thing [NATO allies] shouldn’t do now is inflame the [Russia] situation with loud saber-rattling and warmongering.” Indeed, he added, “we would be well advised not to provide a pretext to renew an old confrontation.”

A large-scale, permanent U.S. presence and subsidy in Europe is not needed or deserved, especially as Washington shifts attention to Asia. To that end — and to force our European allies to confront the realities of their own strength and recent laxity alike — Washington should pursue policies that force Europe to ramp up its investment and commitment to NATO. Rather than increasing our security obligations to defend wealthy nations in Europe, Washington should shift more of the burden to our allies to more actively manage their own affairs. A concrete first step would be to wind down the planned $6.5 billion taxpayer subsidy to our rich allies called the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), which is a dramatic increase from $3.4 billion in 2017, a duplication of NATO, and could be a source of unnecessary escalation in conflict with Russia.

Urging NATO’s European members — and Germany in particular — to assume more responsibility for their defense may be politically difficult in the near term, but in the long run it is essential for American security and prosperity, making all governments involved more accountable to their citizens and more judicious in their defense.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week.

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