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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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  • Gary Hemminger

    What a terrible message this sends to Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and other rogue regimes. And the western elite wonder why these rogue nations are so aggressive. the message we are sending them is that we talk strong but act weak. It is exactly the opposite of Teddy’s “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

  • Andrew Allison

    Time for the USA to announce that it will cut its NATO expenditure 5%/year for the next five years, a net reduction of 23%. If the Europeans don’t want to take up the slack, so be it.

    • Jim__L

      I’m sure Putin would be happy to take up the slack, and he’s part of Europe, right?

    • f1b0nacc1

      I believe that we should go much further. Leave NATO immediately, and offer to establish bilateral treaties (where they would be advantageous to us) in their place. These treaties should be firmly based upon reciprocal responsibilities.

      The time has come to cut the deadbeats loose. If Putin wants them, good luck to him.

      • Pete

        “Reciprocal responsibilities.”

        Wow. That’s an alien concept to the Washington establishment. They’re content to give away America’s blood and treasure for free.

      • Andrew Allison

        I don’t think that leaving immediately is practicable (Putin is dangerous), but I wouldn’t be opposed to giving five years notice of withdrawal while reducing our contributions as above. It would give those NATO member who actually want to defend themselves time to man up and negotiate the treaties to which you refer.

        • f1b0nacc1

          It would take 3-5 years to move everything in any event…so announcing it now, and getting started would have pretty much the same effect.

          The key though is to offer bilateral agreements to those states that do want to defend themselves, with strongly worded reciprocal agreements ‘baked into the cake’ as it were…

  • Kevin

    Germany and other Northern European nations woukd be wise to shift their bail outs of their southern and eastern neighbors into subsidies to border patrols, maritime patrols, army reserves, etc. given the disparity in wages the money would go a lot further adding manpower to the peripheral states and might help sop up some of their youth unemployment.

  • Fat_Man

    The problem is caused by the existance of NATO. Europeans have been free-riders on the US defense gravy train for the last 70 years. Only dissolving NATO can rescue us from this impasse.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      I agree, they figure it doesn’t matter how much they spend on defense, America will come save them if needed. America will have to withdraw from NATO, and declare an end to American defense assistance to any nation it doesn’t have a defense treaty in place with. The European Free Loaders should be left to fend for themselves.

    • Jim__L

      The problem is, the desired end state is not the shattering of the treaty organization, which would just make our enemies cheer, and give them the ability to achieve their goals piecemeal.

      The solution is not to face outward and tear things apart. The solution is to face inwards and build up — build up consensus that declining defense budgets on BOTH sides of the Atlantic are a bad idea, *even if we have to forego the temptation to dole out ever-more money for social programs*.

      Government cannot solve all human suffering. However, history records what sort of international horrors can be prevented by solid military capacity.

      The Pax Americana is real. It must be maintained through competent diplomacy, and yes, spending.

  • Blackbeard

    Stagnant economies, collapsing demographics and an impotent military is not a winning combination and the EU has all three. And our progressive leaders here in the US are eager for us to follow their lead.

    The Fall of the West, happening right before our eyes.

  • Pete

    And the neocons at this site still what the US to bulk up in eastern Europe and the Baltics.

    Come on, man!

  • Boritz

    “the measures all mature democracies take to defend themselves.”

    Denouncing “the far right” and guarding paranoically against immigrant backlash that never materializes. Oh, you mean internationally. What are they?

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