Back in 1954, just five years after the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Dwight Eisenhower’s defense secretary, John Foster Dulles, threatened Europe with an “agonizing reappraisal” of America’s commitment to the alliance if European members did not start bearing more of the financial brunt.
Since then, traveling to Europe to chide US allies for their sub-par investment in military budgets has become a tradition for US defense chiefs, performed with ritual angst and in foreboding tones just before a defense secretary steps down.
Against this backdrop, Leon Panetta, the current Pentagon chief who has said he will step down in the next few months, makes his own valedictory visit to the old world.
With his would-be successor former Sen. Chuck Hagel nominated by President Obama last week, Panetta is expected to use the trip to drive home Washington's unhappiness with the vast disparity in the percentage of GDP that the US spends on defense when compared to NATO’s European members.
The United States today spends about 4.8 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. By comparison, European NATO members spend about 1.7 percent. According to 2010 data, only six of NATO’s 26 European members met the alliance’s defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP.
Like defense secretaries Bill Gates, Donald Rumsfeld, William Cohen, Caspar Weinberger, and half a dozen more before them, Panetta will be preaching to the choir during his visits to London, Madrid, Berlin and Rome. Most agree with former British Defense Minister Liam Fox, who says European NATO members are failing to live up to their commitements to NATO.
"You cannot expect to have the insurance policy but ask others to pay the premiums."
Speaking of the spending and capabilities gap between the US and European NATO members, Dutch Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told an alliance summit in November “we need to stop the decline and then we need to reverse it.“
If the imbalance looks startling on a paper, US officials contend it is deadly on the battlefield. The low spending levels and lack of modern tactics and equipment have reduced the “inter-operability” of NATO militaries, outside the British, with their American counterparts.
“Frankly, if you put a non-networked company of Spanish or Canadian troops next to a modern US force, there’s a very high risk that our weaponry will be unable to distinguish ‘friend or foe,’" a senior Pentagon official said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “That’s why, sadly, we send the Europeans off into the sticks, and why when they’re not there are so many friendly fire incidents.”
During the first Gulf War, in fact, accidental targeting by US troops killed more British soldiers than the Iraqis did. It was a lesson Britain took to heart, upgrading its systems and exercising regularly with the US. But other NATO militaries still lack those and other high-end capabilities.
In Libya, for instance, even after Obama insisted Europe take the lead, American stockpiles of smart bombs and missiles were drawn down quickly after French and British stores quickly ran out.
While European defense officials will be eager to assuage Panetta, the US has heard it all before. And in Europe — wracked by a sovereign debt crisis and no obvious threat from a traditional military power — few politicians have increases in military spending on their agenda. It is America, many say, that is disproportionate — spending as much on its military as the next 10 largest military powers combined, and launching a war in Iraq that Europeans are expected to unquestionably support.
Indeed, if this was a hard sell during the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union may have made it impossible to wring significant increases out of Europe. Italy, one of the continent’s more ambitious powers, has cut spending by 10 percent. The UK has mothballed its last aircraft carrier, and cuts in Spain and the Netherlands have reduced their contribution, as well.
American strategists argue — and many European defense officials would agree — that US global commitments keep sea lanes open, deter Islamic terrorists of the kind who killed hundreds in London and Madrid in the last decade, and above all, keep oil and gas flowing (and prices stable) in the Persian Gulf.
Closer to home, defense analysts on both sides of the Atlantic worry about the future evolution of Russia. Poland, in particular, cites Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and its bullying of the Baltic states and Ukraine.
Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, has been particularly forceful on this issue, citing recent Russian wargames that played out into a scenario that included invading the Baltics and nuking Warsaw. Urging Germany to spend more on defense, he said, “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”
But such hypotheticals tend to fall on deaf ears when the continent’s economy is teetering. Panetta, like his forebears, will invariably press for more spending — and equally important, for an end to the European tendency to protect small local defense manufacturers at the expense of standardized weapons procurement, something that wastes billions in funding.
And even as Washington rejoins the debate on Europe’s spending, the trajectory for America’s own military budget appears headed down. Some of this is the natural result of ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but America’s own sovereign debt crisis is the main cause.
In a sign of the times, a Bloomberg reporter demanded a justification for Panetta’s four-city European tour on budgetary grounds, alluding to Panetta’s Italian heritage and suggesting there was no national security reason to spend such money. That question brought a chuckle from the press corps, but is a good indication both of Europe’s diminishing importance to US thinking and tough economic times.
While the Pentagon is likely to avoid the “sequestering” of its budget, most Pentagon analysts see a reduction of at least $500 billion in spending over the next decade. And with the US “pivot” toward East Asia underway, what’s left is unlikely to be devoted to Europe.