Europe's looming defense crisis is a threat to NATO

When Europe eventually emerges from this economic crisis, will they have the militaries necessary to help America lead?

NATO members meet in May. Can EU nations convince their American colleagues?
Patrick Christy
On 5 January 2012 16:03

Europe’s on-going debt crisis will have a dramatic impact on NATO’s future defense operations.  As we speak, governments across the Continent are instituting austerity measures to avert credit downgrades and the collapse of the Euro. After years of shrinking defense budgets, more cuts are expected, further restricting the continent’s ability to defend U.S. and European interests abroad. 

Margaret Thatcher warned in 1996:

“[B]ecause the risk of total nuclear annihilation has been removed, we in the West have lapsed into an alarming complacency about the risks that remain.  We have run down our defences and relaxed our guard.  And to comfort ourselves that we were doing the right thing, we have increasingly placed our trust in international institutions to safeguard our future.”

Lady Thatcher’s warning rings true today. Over the past two decades, Europe’s ability to project military power abroad has been dramatically reduced as the cost of social-welfare programs have ballooned. 

One decade ago the United States accounted for 50 percent of NATO’s defense spending. Today, that number has risen to more than 75 percent. Over the past two years alone, defense spending for NATO’s European members shrank $45 billion—an amount roughly equivalent to Germany’s annual defense budget. This year, only five of NATO’s 28 members will meet the alliance’s non-binding requirement that they each spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. 

In addition, budget reductions are certain to decrease Europe’s already low appetite—and, critically, its ability—to engage in future military operations. This will surely increase the continent’s over-reliance on the United States. 

As then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates underscored last year, “The demilitarization of Europe … has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.”

NATO’s European members have insisted that cuts won’t affect current operations in Afghanistan and Africa. However, recent out-of-area operations have already exposed the growing divide—militarily and politically—between Europe and the United States.

For example, operations in Libya this year exposed a political rift between European nation states on whether or not to use force to protect civilians. Although French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Cameron initially rallied support for a no-fly zone, Germany—Europe’s largest economy and a NATO member since 1955—abstained.

Despite President Obama’s attempts to “lead from behind” in Libya, the United States was forced to fill the void in European military capabilities. Soon after the intervention began, European forces ran short of munitions, refueling aircrafts, and reconnaissance flights.  By the war’s end, the United States provided approximately three-quarters of the mission’s air-to-air refueling aircrafts and reconnaissance flights. 

In addition, European shortfalls have become evident in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. The “Atalanta” operation, as it is named, currently has only three ships in operation to patrol an area roughly 10 times to size of Germany.  The mission calls for a minimum of four to six ships.

Europe’s downward defense trajectory poses a strategic problem for the United States. First, it comes at a time when major U.S. defense cuts are imminent. Under the congressionally mandated Budget Control Act of 2011, the Pentagon’s budget could be slashed between $500 million and $1 billion over ten years. The Obama administration already has implemented three rounds of defense cuts.

Second, European defense shortfalls will constrain that continent’s ability—and willingness—to respond to regional crises. For example, could European nations intervene in Syria—located less than one thousand miles from Athens—to protect civilians from the brutality of the Assad regime? As the United States “pivots” towards the Asia-Pacific, Washington will become less able—financially and militarily—to project power along Europe’s periphery.

The United States still has important economic and security interests in and around Europe. Indeed, the transatlantic relationship represents the largest economic trading bloc in the world, with trade flows totaling $4.6 billion per day. 

However, Members of Congress will be hard-pressed to support further NATO missions around Europe at a time when many of those same governments are not holding their own weight.

In May 2012, NATO members will gather in Chicago. Although leaders will focus on NATO’s future role in Afghanistan, the meeting will be an important moment for various European nations to convince their North American colleagues that future security obligations will be met. 

Transatlantic military cooperation is essential to protecting American and European interests abroad, just as it was on the beaches of Normandy, the mountains of the Hindu Kush, and the streets of Baghdad. The question is, when Europe eventually emerges from this economic crisis, will they have the militaries necessary to help America lead?

Patrick Christy is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.

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