A palpable sigh of relief emanated from NATO’s headquarters in Brussels and the capitals of 27 NATO members when Donald Trump finally had a good word to say about history’s most successful and enduring alliance. He did not, of course, go so far as to acknowledge NATO’s genuine achievements: agreeing in 1949 that an attack on any allied state would be considered an attack on all; creating in 1950 a structure of military commands that facilitates operations and creates a common strategic culture among members’ militaries; integrating West Germany as a military power into a cooperative framework in 1954; holding at bay bristling Soviet aggression for 45 years and Russian revanchism since; voluntarily sharing the burdens of a common defense—including nuclear weapons responsibilities; using America as a counterweight to potentially ruinous intra-European competition; reunifying Germany in 1991 without setting off alarms among European countries and Russia; imposing an end to the Balkan wars in 1995 and keeping the still-hostile parties from shooting at each other since; expanding the perimeter of security that encourages prosperity and accountable governance to Eastern and Southern Europe; preventing the Qaddafi regime from carrying out its apparent plan to massacre Libyans in March 2011; fighting for 15 years in Afghanistan; and continually finding ways to adapt a Cold War institution to new security challenges.
But at least President Trump finally acknowledged that NATO is not obsolete, and has important counter-terrorism work underway. While meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on April 12 the President ludicrously took credit for those developments, claiming they were in response to his leadership. Secretary General Stoltenberg, a model of diplomatic restraint, allowed the fiction to stand in order to pocket the progress. It was a welcome change from what the truculent American President had recently told the Financial Times: “Alliances have not always worked out very well for us. But I do believe in alliances.” U.S. allies are now beginning to hope that the scorn with which President Trump looks upon their contributions is attenuating.
President Trump is certainly ruder than previous American leaders have been in decrying the shortfalls of our European allies, but the aggravation has long been widespread and is still growing. Americans of all political stripes believe it is long past time for Europe to stop indulging in post-Cold War defense cuts. Every American President of the past thirty years—actually longer, for the plaint goes back to the early years of the Nixon Administration—has dreamt up a NATO initiative to cajole greater defense expenditures out of our European allies. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s dire warning in 2011 that American patience was wearing thin went largely unheeded; the European reaction to Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson’s messages that the time has come to meet the 2 percent spending obligation has been “How dare they?” not “How dare we?” As this round of dispute rumbles forward, it is sure to seize on the fact that the obligation undertaken at the 2014 Wales NATO summit is only to “aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade.” There is technically no obligation to actually meet the requirement by 2024.
Why, then, does the United States expend so much time and effort on its European allies?
The Free-Rider Problem
The leaders of the North Atlantic Alliance will meet in Brussels on May 25, hoping to continue the education of a President seemingly impervious to its importance. Rightly skeptical that President Trump would sit still for speeches by other heads of government (even President Obama would read on his iPad or leave the U.S. Ambassador to NATO in the American place at the table and slink out), and fearful that he will further undercut Europe’s security by ventilating his ambivalence about the organization, the North Atlantic Council is considering taking the real-estate developer on a tour of its new headquarters instead.
This is likely to be a disaster. Coming in over time and over budget, the headquarters cost $1.3 billion, 22 percent of which was paid for by the United States, a proportion ostensibly based on the distribution of allied wealth but that has remained roughly the same since 1952.1 Even UN dues have been adjusted to reflect reality since then. The building is likelier to become an example of European profligacy with which the President regales his crowds. One can see the tweet taking shape: “Bloated Europe wastes billions on bad real estate deal! Won’t spend on military! Bring our troops home!”
During his campaign, Donald Trump fulsomely criticized America’s NATO allies for fleecing us, expecting the United States to provide for their security while they manipulate their currencies and set trade rules detrimental to America’s prosperity. Candidate Trump routinely argued that NATO was a Cold War relic, needlessly provoking Russia by expanding its membership and neglectful of the true problem of terrorism. President Trump continued the fusillade, relentlessly reiterating that NATO allies are failing to meet their obligation to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. The day after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he tweeted that Germany “owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”
Most of NATO’s American advocates (me included) have responded by reiterating time-honored, misty-eyed encomia about Transatlantic solidarity, emphasizing that the only time NATO’s mutual defense clause was invoked was by European and Canadian governments in solidarity with us after the September 11 attacks. Those arguments have fallen on deaf ears, because, as with many of the President’s outlandish claims, there is a kernel of truth to his excoriation. NATO allies do rely too heavily on American military power when it is well within their ability to provide for themselves. NATO allies should meet the obligation freely undertaken at the 2014 summit to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. Touching as the show of solidarity after September 11 was, Canada was the only ally whose military cooperation was essential, and that cooperation is provided bilaterally through the North American Aerospace Defense agreements. Civilian air traffic control would surely have been provided without NATO fighter and AWACs planes patrolling American skies; intelligence-sharing is mostly done bilaterally or through the Five Eyes consortium.
And lest we get too sentimental about NATO, recall that the 2001 NATO invocation was the deft handiwork of the British government, part of a broader campaign to show an American administration they feared would act both recklessly and unilaterally the value of institutionalized multilateral cooperation (and Britain’s essential role in securing it). NATO Secretary General George Robertson diplomatically avoided questions about whether the Bush Administration had asked for the invocation of Article 5, brilliantly coercing recalcitrant allies with ominous warnings of an America unconcerned with Europe.
But even if the support of some allies was grudging, they did nonetheless pledge on September 12 that the attack on us was an attack on them, and offer any and all support the Bush Administration wanted in the unnerving aftermath. That Americans were consumed with doing as quickly as possible all that was needed in those unimagined circumstances in no way diminishes the magnitude of commitment evinced by our allies.
Robertson’s refrain that NATO is America’s “permanent coalition of choice” rang less true during the 2003 Iraq War. Some allies shared American motivations—Tony Blair famously countered a journalist’s charge that Britain simperingly bowed to the Bush Administration’s arguments by saying “it’s even worse than you fear: I actually believe them.” Some allies new to NATO were startled to find themselves pressed for political support and forces for a fight far afield of their own security. Some allies saw opportunities to advance an anti-American agenda in the Middle East and beyond (France’s condemnation of the war at a UN meeting on terrorism and French President Jacques Chirac’s flirtation with a Francophone bloc as a counterweight to NATO especially stung). Some allies, Germany especially, feared what America was becoming. That we proceeded despite their objections cast a long shadow over alliance relations.
Stessa Spiaggia, Stesso Mare2
Still, the Iraq War cast no longer a shadow than the Vietnam War, which it paralleled in many ways. It cast no longer a shadow than the Mansfield Amendments of the early 1970s, which would have required the removal of U.S. troops from Europe unless NATO allies dramatically increased their defense spending. It cast no longer a shadow than the acrimonious departure of France from NATO’s military command in 1965, or the U.S. refusal to support Britain and France during their military intervention in Egypt in October 1956. It cast no longer a shadow than the dispute over German rearmament in 1954, which saw the most ardently Europeanist President, Dwight Eisenhower, threaten NATO allies with “an agonizing reappraisal” of the American commitment to NATO.
Indeed, the history of the NATO alliance is one of frequent mutual disappointment. It is also a history of governments realizing they have no better option than to continue wrangling each other into persevering. Fundamentally, Europe cannot be confident in its safety without American assurances. This is less a matter of raw military power and economic prowess than of diplomatic culture. Britain (perhaps decreasingly) and France retain the reflexes of great powers and do not blanch at the use of military force to achieve their political aims—French operations in Mali have proved a salutary model for the limited use of force in support of foreign governments. The forces of Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands made a good showing in Libya. The Baltic states have upped their game considerably in response to Russian threats both novel (hybrid and cyber warfare) and traditional (intimidation with large-scale military exercises).
But most European governments conduct their national security policies at a much greater distance from their militaries, celebrating their concentration on “soft power” tools in lieu of force. Not only do they privilege those tools, they often consider their policies, and themselves, morally superior for the choice. One need only listen to EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker or read of the European Parliament passing legislation condemning U.S. intelligence agencies to share President Trump’s aggravation with Europe. We sentimentalize the Transatlantic connection at our peril.
However, NATO’s fundamental bargain continues to be overwhelmingly advantageous to the United States. European states would be both less willing and less able to help us without NATO. European allies would likely spend even less—not more—on defense without the constant hectoring of the United States within NATO. They would likely spend more on military pay and benefits than on high-end weapons and capabilities; all Western militaries must contend with competing demands on their funding, but the problem is more effectively addressed in NATO, where militaries have greater political capital to make hard choices than in solely national or EU forums. They would not be nearly as able to get organized and act decisively for a common purpose when needed. And they would be less likely to feel an obligation to participate in wars that the U.S. military fights beyond Europe. Diplomatically, we would need to negotiate European states into participating in our endeavors rather than expecting them to proffer a good excuse to remain out. That may seem a subtle difference, but it isn’t.
The truth is that the United States would willingly trade the Europeans in for better allies, if only better allies could be found. Australia, yes—a government serious about its security, with a capable, reasonably well-financed, and innovative military, a culturally comfortable political system, and a history of cooperation. But it, too, spends just barely 2 percent of GDP on defense.
Japan pays more in support of American bases and stationed troops than do our European allies, but that checkbook diplomacy must be weighed against its inhibitions about spending more than 1 percent of GDP on its own defense, deploying fighting forces in support of allied operations even in Asia (their defense law has been interpreted to obviate even support of U.S. efforts to defend South Korea), and cooperating militarily with its neighbors. Under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s leadership a decade ago, Japan made a fundamental realignment, slowly and gently building domestic support for greater defense spending and cooperation, refueling U.S. ships en route to Afghanistan, and sending troops for humanitarian tasks in Iraq (the first international deployment of Japanese troops since 1945). Subsequent Japanese governments have creatively built security linkages, exported defense equipment, and conducted joint military patrols with the forces of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. But as useful as it has become, Japan cannot provide a substitute for the direct participation of European allies.
South Korea also has a robust defense budget and a very capable military that has contributed to the wars of the past 15 years, but it remains skittish about cooperating with Japan and is understandably focused on the challenges of the Korean Peninsula (including its own domestic political crises). Rounding out the list of the world’s ten top defense spenders are our adversaries China and Russia; India, which is slowly shifting toward cooperation with the United States because of China’s worrying behavior; Saudi Arabia, Britain, France, and Germany.
The Saudis are often maligned as being as great a threat as al-Qaeda or ISIS. This not only ignores the great changes in Saudi national security policy, especially after the 2005 terrorist attack in Riyadh, but also the important political and social changes enacted under the influence of the Emirates’ successes and a reformist leadership in the Kingdom. America’s partners in the region have gone on a defense-spending spree, driven by concern about Iranian efforts to destabilize Sunni governments and infiltrate Shi‘a ones. Even with those changes, however, impediments to deeper cooperation remain—Hillary Clinton’s trial balloon as Secretary of State about extending nuclear deterrence to Saudi Arabia deflated quickly due to the American public’s hesitant attitudes toward a country so politically and culturally different.
The possibility certainly exists of strengthening relationships with the countries of the Middle East. Jordan, in particular, has been heroic in its generosity to Syrian refugees and courageous in its policies toward the Assad government. The United Arab Emirates leads in the development of serious military forces and in cooperating with U.S. operations, as it did in Libya. Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE have been stalwart in their commitment to the war in Afghanistan and are being cajoled into a common front against ISIS. Even so, the countries of the Middle East pose challenges that European allies do not. With regard to Egypt and Turkey in particular, the Trump Administration seems to have averted its eyes from the domestic governance concerns that have inhibited previous administrations and tend to sow the seeds of future internal violence. And these countries contribute vastly less to a range of common defense efforts—anti-piracy to take but one example—than do Europeans.
Most of America’s capable regional allies around the world have significant limitations in extending operations beyond their immediate regions. Furthermore, their spending levels overall fail to impress. If we rank countries by per capita military spending, Saudi Arabia far outstrips all other states at $6,909; the United States ranks only 4th with $1,859 per person (Singapore and Israel both spend more). Rounding out the top 15 per-person spenders on defense, though, are seven more NATO allies (Norway, Greece, Britain, France, Luxembourg, Denmark, and the Netherlands). Wan as NATO allies’ spending often seems, it still stacks up favorably against other countries’, and NATO allies are unusual in their willingness to engage beyond their region in support of U.S. efforts.
The Logic of Collective Action
It also merits emphasizing that NATO and “Europe” are not the same. Very often when American exasperation boils up at Europeans, it is the European Union we are reacting to. Not only do the EU’s ambitions outpace its achievements, its advocates and officials often seek acclaim in the present for intentions to accomplish things in the future. But while most NATO allies are also in the European Union, they behave differently in each setting because the institutional cultures of the two organizations are markedly different.
American leadership in NATO creates opportunities that we will never have in other venues. The integrated military command (IMC) in NATO is the way we go to war, because the NATO allies are the countries we most frequently fight alongside, and the long-practiced procedures of the IMC facilitate understanding. Allies show up using equipment compatible with American equipment, talk on radio frequencies already known to American forces, share intelligence across linked systems, and drop bombs that can be shared if one country’s forces run short.
General Tommy Franks is said to have complained in the run-up to the Afghanistan war that he didn’t have time to become an expert on the Danish Air Force. That may be as much an admission of his limitations as a reflection of the contribution of the Danish Air Force, because the United States already has an expert on the Danish Air Force: NATO’s senior military commander. The Supreme Allied Commander for Operations (formerly Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) has always been an American. Europeans insist on that, not only because they want a strong Transatlantic connection, but also because very few European commanders have run operations of the breadth and complexity that American commanders routinely do.
General Franks’s complaint is also characteristic of a time when the American military and even some high-level officials in the Bush Administration arrogantly believed that allies were more hindrance than help—a time of technological dominance and short wars that showcased America’s advantages and investments. Appreciation of allied contributions has increased in proportion to the duration and grimness of the wars we continue to fight. The CENTCOM commander would gladly become an expert on the Danish Air Force now in order to have a supply of allied forces to fight alongside our own.
The U.S. military makes two other complaints about NATO: that member states constrain the use of their forces, and that the pace of collective innovation is slow. Caveats, as they are called in NATO, are the limits that governments place on the participation of their militaries. These typically take the form of more restrictive rules of engagement, such as allowing the air forces only to conduct surveillance and refueling but not drop bombs. In a few extreme instances these restrictions may result in a refusal of a mission or order, as when British General Mike Jackson refused U.S. General Wesley Clark’s direction to prevent Russian troops from taking the Pristina airfield during the Kosovo War.
Frustrating as caveats are, they are legitimate expressions of the political constraints under which governments operate. Which missions forces should engage in, and how great the public tolerance is for casualties suffered in these operations, are constant and valid questions for all elected leaders. Americans often lack perspective about this problem since we ultimately command the forces; if we were placing our troops under foreign command, you can bet Congress would be baying and the administration of the day would be carefully litigating tight restrictions.
The challenge in every multinational operation is how to marry willingness and ability with needed tasks—and NATO is better at that matchmaking than any other American outfit, because of long practice. Allies have fewer regrets about their participation in NATO operations than about pairing with other American combatant commands (for example, there was a rash of complaints from allies about their treatment by CENTCOM early on in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars).
Synchronizing innovation is the hardest military problem to manage. As with caveats, there is merit on both sides of the argument. NATO’s standardization agreements establish guidelines for equipment and operations that keep allied forces interoperable: how fast networks need to transmit data, specifications for attaching bombs to aircraft wings, what kinds and how much ammunition units have, which signals ships at sea use over which frequencies, what kind of fuel vehicles run on. Most are mundane logistical details, but they are nonetheless essential to managing economies of effort. And because they are known and adhered to by all allies, they simplify any military operation, whether undertaken within NATO or not.
The problem comes when those standardization agreements hold states back from war-winning or life-saving innovations. Countries cannot be expected to forego advances in military technology or operations that would cause them fewer casualties or lower the likelihood of defeat. Yet if guidelines were not established and strictly adhered to, coalition forces would have to segregate their operations geographically, take widely varying levels of casualties, and assume very different levels of risk. Operations would require the greatest risk of the countries least able to bear them. The United States, as the NATO country with the biggest budget, greatest demands, and most widely varied security obligations, tends to be the fastest innovator. European nations often struggle to keep pace, feeling that they no sooner meet a standard than the U.S. military raises it. And the U.S. military complains that Europeans lag in adopting newer, better methods.
For example, the U.S. military developed a geolocator called the “blue force tracker” that could tag friendly vehicles so that everyone on the U.S. net could see associated forces. It dramatically reduced fratricide incidents, but the devices were new to U.S. forces and not yet adopted by allied arsenals at the time of the 2003 Iraq War. The U.S. military couldn’t be expected not to utilize them, but allies rightly understood that they reduced the risk only to U.S. forces. The solution in that instance was for the U.S. military to also tag allies, because the political and human costs of friendly fire incidents are so high. Many such solutions are relatively simple in the near term—loans—but harder in the medium term when allies choose not to adopt new practices or equipment.
There is no enduring solution to these problems: They are inherent in coalition fighting. One of the quietly whispered fears of Europeans over the past 25 years has been that, as America’s wars have shifted from Europe to the Middle East, its military talent has migrated in that direction as well. And so, too, its attention: Several European diplomats mentioned during the Obama Administration that they were almost homesick for the arguments about the EU and defense policy with the Bush Administration, because at least Bush cared enough about the issues to fight over them. Europeans sense an ebbing tide of American expertise on European issues, noticing that the same experts cycle through Europe. “They don’t know us” is the subtext of European concern.
Entre Chien et Loup3
Russian aggression is reviving interest in European security, but not diminishing other claims on American attention. Part of the reason why Trump’s criticism of European defense resonates is that challenges in Europe look manageable with the power Europeans could muster on their own. Could Britain, France, Poland, and Germany really not bring enough power to bear to defeat a Russian invasion of a Baltic state? If not, should they not quickly mobilize greater military forces—or more creatively use the nuclear and conventional forces they already have—instead of relying so heavily on American guarantees? Russia is not the peer of any of those countries (with the possible exception of Poland), much less all of them combined.
This plaint misses an important point. In aggregate, Europe’s military assets look formidable, but only the United States can bring them together in an effective fighting ensemble. We are the mainframe, so to speak, and the allies plug into that—whether we are talking about intelligence, logistics, lift, or half a dozen other crucial functions in contemporary warfighting. However well equipped they look on paper, our allies strain to coordinate their assets without us.
In any event, Americans would be wise not to scorn Europeans for clinging to us when they’re worried. Few states have the ability or domestic support to act without benefit of allies or international institutions. The United States does. But allied support matters for our domestic political purposes as well: Americans are more confident that our government is in the right when we win the support of other states that share our values. It matters especially now, when the international order is fraying. The world looks less safe, and the rules less respected, than they did a decade ago.
That countries invite us into their problems is one of the great assets of the American-led order. It reinforces our power to be the guarantor of the order, giving us greater influence over the rules that are set. American hegemony has been unique in setting rules that advantage others as well as us—a mutually beneficial outcome that makes sustaining that order less expensive overall. If we had to impose rules, rather than rely on the attractiveness of our policies, American power would be a much costlier proposition.
Our country has a wider margin of error than most—we can ignore problems that will more quickly overwhelm others. We could choose, as President Trump has often suggested, to define our interests narrowly and leave other states to their fates. But the international order America constructed after World War II is manifestly in our interests. Transatlantic cooperation vividly demonstrates the difference between American power and that of its rivals, because it proves that our methods are different from governments that threaten Europe’s sovereignty and would impose different values.
Europe and the United States constitute a community based on values, not just a military alliance. Indeed, the military alliance would be impossible without shared values—the Eisenhower Administration envisioned NATO-like regional alliances around the world (the South East Asian Treaty Organization comprised of France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan; the Central Treaty Organization consisting of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom); none but NATO proved sustainable. Americans are leery of committing themselves to states with which they share only interests.
America’s security and prosperity benefit from having allies that share our values and help us advance them throughout the world. Those tiresome allies are our primary advantage over rivals like China. While it was the work of a generation to pull Europe’s perspective beyond its borders, NATO has largely succeeded in that. As a former Norwegian Foreign Minister evangelized, “China is not just rising for the United States; it is rising for Europe, too.” Our NATO allies are important validators of the American-led order and important contributors to its sustainment. We will want their help as challenges grow in the Middle East, Russia corrodes further, and China rises (assuming it actually will). We should take care not to throw those allies overboard until we have better allies to replace them with, and that is highly unlikely to occur any time soon.
1Carl Ek, “NATO Common Funds Burdensharing: Background and Current Issues” (Congressional Research Service, February 2012); Germany is the next-highest payer at 15 percent. See “Funding NATO,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, January 19, 2017.
2Same beach, same sea (Italian).
3Between dog and wolf (French); descriptive of dusk, when the known world feels wild.