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Europe's Paper Militaries
NATO Spending Still Shrinking

Despite the ongoing Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine and the conflicts in Syria and Libya that are driving millions of refugees into Europe, the European members of NATO still cut their defense spending overall last year. Reuters reports:

NATO’s defence spending as a share of economic output fell 1.5 percent in 2015, the sixth straight year of cuts, dragged down by a 12 percent decrease in Italy, the U.S.-led alliance said in its annual report.

The 2008/09 financial crisis and the ensuing euro zone crisis forced many NATO allies into drastic measures to reduce their budget deficits, leading to sometimes sharp cuts in defence spending.

But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the data showing total defence budget reductions outside the United States, which accounts for almost three-quarters of NATO military spending, fell just 0.3 percent last year. Overall, the alliance’s total cuts were the mildest in four years.

“We have started to move in the right direction,” Stoltenberg told a news conference, saying that 16 allies spent more on defence in real terms in 2015 and there was also an increase in spending on new equipment. “The cuts have now practically stopped among European allies and Canada.”

Stoltenberg is trying to spin this as good news. But after the Great Recession, many European NATO members treated their defense budgets as rainy-day funds and raided them heavily (Italy, for instance, cut defense spending by 28%.) Collectively, our European NATO allies shed the equivalent of the the entire German Army in troops. To get back up to scratch, even larger increase, in percentage terms, will be required. (Due to the laws of mathematics: think of what it would take to recover from a 28% drop in a stock portfolio.) Germany, for instance, recently mulled the kind of spending increase that would be required to get to the NATO target of 2% of GDP: an eye-watering 70% increase in its military budget.

As those German defense hearings indicate, there have been some signs recently that some European nations are waking up to the necessity of defense increases. But it is alarming to see the Italians still treating their military as optional, even as Libya burns across the Mediterranean, migrant boats come ashore every day, and, not to put too fine a point on it, America has made it clear it’s no longer willing to take care of every military problem that affects Europe. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to see “just” a 0.3% overall decline as anything to cheer.

It’s true that after President Obama, the next occupant of the White House will almost certainly be at least somewhat more proactive in the military crises (Ukraine, Syria, Libya) that are currently bedeviling Europe. But America will not just be able to wave a magic wand and make the problems go away. During the Cold War, the Europeans were a much stouter part of NATO than they are now, accounting for 50% of total spending, as opposed to approximately 30% presently. Now that history has returned, so too, sooner or later, must the measures all mature democracies take to defend themselves.

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