Are Western European members free-riding, or just optimizing?
Recently, there’s been a lot of debate on NATO, its function, its role, and how it may be ‘free-riding’ off of US military power. If we use the 2% spending threshold as a benchmark, it’s clear to me that yes, there are free-riders. Even more striking examples include countries such as Austria, which spend under 1% of their GDP on military spending, and are members of the Partnership for Peace. They have no such obligation for military spending but are clearly almost entirely dependent on NATO’s military assets should action need to be taken abroad (or, although this is an almost absurd proposition, in case of a Russian encroachment/invasion.)
There needs to be a serious conversation about what this 2% threshold means. It’s chronically violated by a majority of NATO nations, and the fact it’s chronically being broken does raise questions about if there are free-riders. The alliance has clear requirements, and those nations which break them don’t suffer as a result. Countries like Germany utilize militaries largely comprised of conscripted youth, that more resemble youth training than an effective fighting force.
The Simond De Galbert piece in the Atlantic points out some very important mitigating factors. NATO allies are increasing spending significantly more than they were recently (to be fair, it’s because they are scared of security threats, not because they feel obligated to repay the US). Yet he brushes over the fact these 2% targets were missed over many years. In times of peace, the US picks up the tab regardless, while NATO and Western Europe cut budgets.
But I do see the gist of the argument. The US defense budget is around 4% of GDP. The USA, compared to Europe, has been much more muscular in using its military in the last forty years or so, intervening when Europe has been afraid to. The NATO mutual defense clause has never been invoked by a European nation, and the US is increasingly making a “pivot to Asia.” The US is aiming to advance its foreign policy in part with this military spending. The 4% of GDP military spending is not just for allies: it also helps the USA, and allows it to act unilaterally in a way most of Western Europe simply cannot. Any large-scale operation would need American support. The UK spends 2%, and gets comparatively little. While it meets the NATO threshold (which we all can appreciate, and helps in joint operations), it still isn’t in a place where it can operate unilaterally. It doesn’t help the UK that much in a purely self-interested manner. Jeremy Corbyn has called for the dismantling of Trident (and hence almost explicitly endorses free-riding on the US nuclear arsenal.) The question is, what can and what should happen to those that shirk duty. The UK, as I alluded to, gets little out of its defense spending. Many other nations don’t spend the 2%, and there is no negative. So why should the UK, when even at 2% its unilateral power is limited?
If the US wants to spend 4%, and this means other states don’t need to spend 2% due to positive externalities, do we really need to enforce the 2% threshold?
Intuitively, everyone is acting in their own self-interests. The US would love to have more military power from allies, but knows it needs to spend the 4% to maintain its agenda on two fronts, so will do so regardless of EU spending. The EU knows the US can use these assets to assist them, so prioritizes spending on measures that help their own citizens directly such as welfare, or a youth conscripted military. Countries such as the UK value their special relationship so meet the threshold, and France may want to have the ability to act on their own against ISIS. Eastern European nations want to deter Russian encroachment ala Ukraine. Austria doesn’t feel threatened (yet) and has chosen to keep its spending low. To be fair, I’m not sure how its lack of NATO membership truly weighs into its decision making.
Everyone is acting in what they see to be their own best interest. The US may want increased German spending, but this does somewhat change the dynamic of NATO. Hastings Ismay said the purpose of NATO was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” A powerful Germany in NATO would change things significantly, although it might be a good thing in the post Cold War era.
I’m not sure whether now was a good time to bring the lack of European NATO spending up. US-European cooperation is in a pretty good place. Trump may advocate for the fundamental restructuring and dismantling of NATO (a fairly clearly bad idea), but there is a point to be made. As things are structured at present, Europe has little incentive to meet its threshold (although this may be changing). The US has no incentive to abandon them if they dont meet these thresholds, and the longer these 2% thresholds are broken the weaker they become. Undoubtedly, should wider scale conflict break out, the US will want strong European allies. Yet I don’t anticipate a drop in US military spending even if its allies hit the 2% mark: the US probably wants to spend 4% independent of NATO requirements. There needs to be discussion about the 2% rule and how, if at all, it will be enforced. As it stands though, the 2% rule is just a number and not an incentive: who can blame Germany for breaking it? Until it incentivizes, it will only be an easy way to invoke the free-rider argument. But it will do nothing to change the supposed “free-rider” dynamic.