Relief in Brussels must not lead to defense complacency
On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg invited Joe Biden to attend a summit in Brussels in January, soon after he takes office as the 47th US president. Stoltenberg said the heads of all 30 member states will be present at the gathering, for which a date has yet to be set. It will be a crucial event both for Biden and his allies.
For the former, it will be his first opportunity to interact as president with other NATO leaders, historically the closest allies of the US. The meeting is an opportunity for him to reset Washington’s relationships with other members in general, and Europeans in particular. These ties have been under tremendous strain for the past four years as a result of the policies and comments of Donald Trump, who described NATO as “obsolete” four years ago, before he officially took over as president.
He also accused the organization of not doing enough to fight terror, and said membership was financially unfair to the US because other members were failing to contribute their fair share to running costs and the funding of missions around the world.
It is true that few other nations were spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense, which is one of the key targets set by NATO to strengthen and modernize the organization so that it can better face new threats emerging around the world.
Trump warned that the US would refuse to shoulder the bulk of the financial burden alone and would not subsidize the defense of European nations, telling them to contribute more toward the costs of stationing thousands of American troops at the numerous bases the US maintains in continental Europe. He went so far as to move thousands of troops out of Germany, one of the most reluctant and passive partners of the alliance, to a base in Poland.
Trump’s comments and actions caused concern in NATO capitals, where many leaders tried to mollify him by promising to increase defense spending. Some European leaders, most notably French President Emmanuel Macron, began to talk about the creation of a European Defense Force, along the lines of NATO. This would boost defense capabilities and permit the EU to undertake joint missions within its borders or in nearby areas, such as North Africa and Sahel in Sub-Saharan Africa, reducing the dependence on NATO for internal security.
Despite the European promises of increased defense spending, little has changed as Trump prepares to leave the White House. Few major EU nations that were below the 2 percent threshold have ramped it up to that level and, as of this year, only nine countries — including the US, UK and Poland — have defense budgets known to reach that goal.
Despite the European promises of increased defense spending, little has changed as Trump prepares to leave the White House.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Defense spending by many major EU powers, including France, Italy, Spain and Germany, has barely moved over the past four years. Spending by France increased marginally from 1.78 percent of GDP in 2016 to 1.84 percent in 2019, though some analysts predict it will reach the 2 percent benchmark this year. Germany was at 1.38 percent in 2019, while Spain was the laggard among larger EU members on 0.92 percent.
Despite Macron’s enthusiasm, the proposed European Defense Force has been put on ice. This is largely a result of resistance from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has always been cool about defense matters or a greater role for the German military outside its borders.
It is clear that without proactive German support, an “EU army” cannot become even a “paper tiger.” And in any case, Macron was unable to secure any meaningful support for the idea from any other EU capital. It is therefore evident that defense is not a priority for most European leaders, who would rather spend more time, and money, addressing other issues that resonate more with their voters and industry. This is the case even in face of repeated terrorist incidents in EU nations over the past five years.
The recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia on Europe’s doorstep was another reminder of how useful a European Defense Force might have been in restoring peace. As it was, the Europeans, with the exception of France, mostly stood by and it was left to Russia to intervene.
It might well be a case of old habits dying hard. For well over a century, the Europeans have been used to depending on Uncle Sam for protection. They now seem to take it for granted that, however dire the situation might become, they can bank on the US to bail them out.
Though Biden should definitely not go down the Trump route, he might be doing the Europeans a big favor if he continues to force them to do more to take responsibility for their own defense into their own hands.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.