Of Freeloaders and Trumpists

What would be left, would the United States put its ideas into action and reduce its involvement in NATO? Four years ago, at the NATO summit in Wales, President Obama indicated that he wanted to see an increase in commitment from the Western defense alliance’s European member states in the years to come. In figures, the agreement reached requires all Member States to move towards defense spending equivalent to two percent of GDP.

Since then, the ambiguous formulation of the target has led to discussions as to whether 2% of GDP will actually have to be spent at the end of the ten-year period introduced in 2014 or whether mere adjustments will suffice. In the case of Germany, this discussion is superfluous, as defense spending even decreased in relative terms between 2016 and 2017.

Decreased U.S. commitment would prove disadvantageous for Europe

This development is symbolized by recurring reports not only by scientists but also by the troops themselves, according to whom defensive capability cannot be assumed in a real crisis. With four operational fighter aircraft, no NATO mission of any kind can be backed. For a better understanding of the figure: Germany has agreed to provide up to 82 aircraft for the alliance. Four Eurofighter aircraft – that is less than Austria has on standby at all times.

Against this background, it comes as no surprise when the US government under President Trump suggests that reduced engagement within NATO is imaginable. Although from the President’s point of view, this position may also be understandable in view of the low level of support for NATO and the duty of assistance associated with membership, Europeans have no interest in such a solution, which is rather equivalent to dissolution.

The United States’ continued renewal of the security guarantee for Europe as a result of its involvement in NATO will remain the foundation of European security cooperation in the short and medium terms. Initiatives such as PESCO are very welcome and complement the security architecture – but they will not change the fundamental unwillingness to spend more resources on the security of Europe’s borders.

The fact that even after having made promises of increased individual defence budgets in 2014, European NATO members failed to give those allies closer to Russia a sense of security is also reflected in the increased presence of American forces in Eastern Europe, for which $4.8 billion are currently being spent – an amount that will be increased by another 35% in 2019. The target sum of $6.5 billion corresponds to the total defense budget of NATO’s eleven smallest states.

America first does not mean America alone – but this becomes harder to convey

Despite all the justified criticism from Washington, however, it should also be noted that defense expenditures – even in Germany – are increasing in absolute figures. Any budgetary increase seems to cost legislative effort and voter confidence. As of today, Germany is facing a situation in which Russia is trusted by more people than the United States. The rhetoric that is no longer based in part on consensus among members will not change this situation. As a result of these verbal exchanges of blows, engagement within NATO is increasingly doubted – this is hardly surprising when allies are treated in a completely different way from one day to the other.

The President’s policy on security is clear. It is synonymous with European security and with continued strong cooperation between Europe and the United States. America first, after all, does not mean America alone. However, this fact is becoming increasingly difficult to convey.

Anyone who tries to do so is quickly treated as a supporter of the President – although the vast majority of those who agree with the 2018 president in terms of defense policy would have opposed the 2016 candidate. A strong commitment to defense cooperation is not a question of presidents, it is a question of right or wrong, secure or insecure.

It takes courage and conviction to stand up and – partly in defiance of the President’s inconsiderate remarks – to promote continued strong defense cooperation. Of course, it is right to question the choice of words when the European Union is described as a foe. Equally as important is putting them into context.

Put an end to the freeloading in defense policy!

In the Euro-American context, statements made by a President, Chancellor or Minister never stand by themselves. Although they are of great importance, they are first and foremost part of a larger picture formed by millions of tourists, business people, students, families and of course interested supporters of the trans-Atlantic relationship based on a historical framework that will link Europe and North America for all time.

Ignoring statements such as those about the latest NATO partner, Montenegro, is not the solution. In fact, many a piece of porcelain is at risk of breakage. Mutual trust is shrinking. However, it is up to both sides to rebuild this trust. In a relationship in which Brussels, Berlin and Washington highlight each other’s mistakes, it is time to highlight joint successes and to resolve problems. There is only one solution to the problem of free-riding in defense policy, and it must be tackled. As early as possible and as courageously as possible.

Lukas Posch serves as President of the Young Transatlantic Initiative. This article describes his personal point of view, which is not necessarily the point of view shared by the Young Transatlantic Initiative.