The realm of international and intergovernmental relations is eternally in a Hobbesian state of nature: by and large, life for sovereign governments is nasty, brutish and short unless one possesses the means and the willpower to deter outside governments and internal strongmen.
In many nations, threats from neighboring states or internal instability make the perils of governing apparent, but the states of Western Europe have no such reminders about the brutal nature of the world. Their quotidian experience for the past 20 years comprised a near-total absence of external state-based military threats. All the while, defense budgets (as a percentage of GDP) have declined. Many have advocated dramatic cuts in military spending, reasoning that Europe has no need for destroyers, frigates or warplanes. The UK Defence Ministry even recommended that strategic defense resources be reallocated toward rapid deployment counter-terror forces, arguing that Europe faced a minimal prospect of military threats for foreseeable future.
As the European political class has converged on the idea that standing strategic defense has been obviated by collective unity, hostile rivals have been building up military capabilities. Russia has invaded Georgia and launched cyberattacks against former Soviet Republics, China has been developing its navy and Iran has edged steadily closer to possession of nuclear weapons.
Europe remains blind to growing traditional threats, and the blame lies on the other side of the Atlantic.
At the outset of the Cold War, Europe was too poor to furnish an effective defense against the Soviet Empire, so the U.S. established North Atlantic Treaty Organization with the understanding that the U.S. would guarantee the sovereignty and security of the weaker European powers it was rebuilding with American aid. By placing about 100,000 troops on the front lines of Western Europe at the behest of European leaders, the U.S. ensured that any Soviet invasion would result in massive American casualties and thus total American commitment to Europe’s security.
The situation changed abruptly when the Soviet Union began a steady retreat in the 1980s as the once-mighty Soviets ceased to compete with American security forces. The Communist Bloc disappeared within a year, and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later. The standing threat was gone.
Immediately, there was an impact on security preparedness: European defense budgets were slashed below the 2 percent of GDP minimum required by NATO. European states surmised correctly that the short-term risk was low, and that the United States would protect them if necessary.
The situation was untenable: the United States was now in effect, subsidizing all of Europe. It worsened in the late 1990s. Genocide in Southeastern Europe raged for years because European states would neither use force nor reallocate sufficient funds to make the threat of force credible. The U.S. was forced to step into Europe’s backyard to end the carnage. European states lent little more than logistical support, and the only allied casualties were American servicemen fighting on Europe’s behalf.
While the 2001 terrorist attacks upped the European defense commitments — many provided significant logistical aid in the war against the Taliban and European peacekeepers took on a larger role — it didn’t last. European states restricted the use of their peacekeepers, forcing their American counterparts to take on virtually all dangerous missions.
The current situation requires rectification. While NATO allies have used their defense budgets for fiscal stimulus purposes rather than meaningful military procurement, America is in the red, and its citizens perish on behalf of the free world as a whole.
Admittedly, it may be too late to try to rally European spirits; the Western European ethos has been one of self-deprecating apathy for decades, and the will to fight seems to be gone. What they do not lack, however, is money.
The combined GDPs of America’s European friends, Japan, Australia, Canada and South Korea is over 20 trillion dollars. Each of these allied states has a relatively weak military but spends tens of billions of dollars on defense. If they were each to contribute 1 percent of GDP toward an American overseas defense force, the U.S. would be able to both procure additional strategic assets and pay for long-term overseas deployments and base maintenance without resorting to permanent deficit spending. In other words, the U.S. would actually be able to maintain its Delian League-style commitments abroad if its allies paid Delian League-style contributions.
It may be difficult to get the voluntary participation of many states; most assume that the United States would defend them even if they refused to pay for their share of the externality of America’s overseas power. Given trillion-dollar deficits and massively growing debt, however, American policymakers should remind allies that there may soon come a time when we cannot afford to pay for their security.
Free riders may laugh now — they won’t when the fleet off their shores is Chinese, and not American, and they find the aegis they have prospered under has sundered under debt.
Trevor Wagener is a junior in Pierson College.