Europe in NATO No More Freeloading

Donald Trump and Barack Obama have one thing in common. They think Europe has been enjoying the benefits of NATO, financed largely by the United States. This status quo will have to change, argues Handelsblatt's international correspondent.
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

As early as 13 years ago, the neocon author Robert Kagan predicted the Europeans would be driven out of “Paradise.” In his essay “Of Paradise and Power” the American criticized the unequal distribution of the burden in the Western defense alliance: While the United States took care of security, Europe was free to enjoy the peace dividend.

And not much has changed in terms of this distribution of roles. According to the latest figures of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute SIPRI, last year the Americans’ military spending on security,  was nearly $600 billion - more than twice as much as all the countries in western and central Europe together. Within NATO, the United States bears around two thirds of the entire financial burden.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential contender Donald Trump have made it clear that this unequal distribution of the burden cannot continue in view of the latest threats, especially from Russia and Islamic terrorism. While Mr. Obama recently complained bitterly about European “freeloaders," benefiting from American security policy, Mr. Trump went further still, threatening to dissolve NATO as the United States was being ripped off. The logical result of this unusual “Obama-Trump doctrine” is the expulsion of the Europeans from Paradise.

The expectation that Europe will have to spend more and do more for the safety of the West in future, is shared by both major parties in the United States.

That the instincts of two such different politicians as Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump should be so similar, will surprise many. Especially as the U.S. President immediately rejected Mr. Trump’s call to dissolve NATO, accusing the Republican candidate of having no idea about foreign policy. But the Europeans should be under no illusion here: The expectation that Europe will have to spend more and do more for the safety of the West in future, is shared by both major parties in the United States. And a President Hillary Clinton would not reopen the gates to Paradise either. The cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could amount to some $4 trillion, according to recent studies; America, faced with moderate prospects for growth and higher social expenditure on “baby boomers” who are about to retire, has neither the desire nor the means to play global policeman all on its own.

Quite apart from this, there has been a shift of U.S. geopolitical interests toward Asia. The Middle East is no longer at the center of American foreign policy. One reason for this, but not the only one, is the fact that the United States is no longer dependent on oil from the region, thanks to the shale gas revolution. Of course, the next U.S. president will also keep a protective eye on Israel, but the Arab allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia are being looked at a great deal more skeptically in Washington these days. When the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently asked Mr. Obama if the Saudis were no longer America’s friends, the U.S. President’s reply was mysterious: “It’s complicated.”

In Washington’s foreign policy establishment circles, Europe and the Middle East are still popular. But both Mr. Obama and, more vocally, Mr. Trump, are contemptuous of the “think tanks” on Washington’s Massachusetts Avenue. It is by no means sure that Ms. Clinton, who belongs to the establishment, will be able, or indeed want to resist the change in foreign policy.

The imminent change of heart in Washington is forcing the Europeans to think again, and the first signs of this are evident. The reduction in military spending in Europe has slowed down, according to SIPRI. Faced with a Russian threat, Poland and the Baltic countries, in particular have made double-digit increases in spending, but there are also signs of a changing mood in Great Britain, France and Germany. However, with a share of just 1.2 percent of gross domestic product, Berlin’s defense spending is a long way from the declared 2 percent goal of NATO countries.

Increases in military spending were long branded as “sabre rattling” in German federal debates. That is another luxury we have to thank the Paradise for, which America has guaranteed for so long. But we can no longer ignore the global disarray and the threats which accompany it. The “soft power” of Europe can only be strong and credible if it is backed up with “hard power.” As Robert Kagan wrote in 2003: The Americans are from Mars and the Europeans from Venus. It’s about time we were all on the same planet.


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