Expanding Community Krista Burns

Picking up the Slack

Earlier in June of this year some of the NATO European member countries participated in a cooperative military exercise in Northern Spain. According to Reuters, “French and Spanish fighters fly alongside Swedish and Czech transport aircraft while a multinational team of mechanics changes the engine on a Belgian plane” in an attempt to show that the European allies can cooperate on what is called “pooling and sharing” by the EU and “Smart Defence” by NATO.

This type of multinational defence cooperation is something that has been championed by the United States as the way forward for NATO, particularly in regards to Europe’s security. American officials have made no effort to hide their dwindling appetite for involvement abroad. In the past, people such as former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said that American taxpayer’s willingness and patience to spend resources “on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources […] to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” are running to an end.

The issue of America’s carrying most of NATO’s burden is not something new; it is an issue that NATO has struggled with since its establishment. During the years of Cold War, however, the United States was willing to bear the burden of defending Europe. In the absence of a direct enemy and in an era of fiscal constraint, the need for Europe to pick up the slack to defend itself is still present.

The simple fact is that the United States has not been immune to falling defence budgets, and as a result, cannot continue to guarantee Europe’s security indefinitely, especially if European countries are unwillingly to take the steps needed to pay their share of the cost. Since the global financial crisis, domestic issues have taken precedence with the American public. Earlier this week, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel made the decision to cut 5,000 jobs in the Pentagon in an effort to reduce defence expenditure. As a result, all areas of US defence are seeing a drawback.

In Europe, however, the ongoing financial crisis is continuing to take priority over defence spending. Although some countries at the centre of the crisis have graduated out of their austerity programs, the internal political debate in countries such as Portugal is drastically hindering recovery.

In addition, Europe possesses two fatal flaws that negatively impact the US and the Alliance as a whole. The first flaw that has developed in Europe is the demilitarization of Europe, resulting loss of appetite for military, both on political and cultural level in many European countries. Yet, one need only to see a map of Europe to realize that there are potential security threats on Europe’s borders. As Jolyon Howorth points out in an article for Foreign Policy, “From the Arctic Circle to the Baltic Sea and down to the Black Sea, from the Bosphorus to the Straits of Gibraltar, destabilization hovers around the EU’s entire periphery.”

The second fatal flaw that exists is the tendency towards free riding on the US to guarantee European survival. Despite the fact that successive US administrations have tried to push the European allies to cover more of the NATO costs, as of 2011, the US still provided 75% of NATO’s operational budget. Unfortunately for Europe, the US is no longer willing to bear that burden indefinitely.

It should be kept in  mind that the United States is not being unrealistic, and in no way the US is withdrawing from the Alliance. In fact, on a variety of defence programs, such as the European surveillance drone program, the US is willing to foot the majority of development and procurement bill as long as the European allies participate in the long-term maintenance of it.

And Europe is contributing as well. “NATO’s European members’ annual defense spending tops $250 billion dollars, almost equal to the U.S. defense budget prior to 9/11.” The problem is that due to inefficient cooperation between European countries, a large portion of the budget is spent on duplicate military procurement programs, or on acquiring military technologies that benefit individual countries, not the continent as a whole. This is the reason that NATO has put emphasis on smart defence, to not only to pool resources, but also to cooperate on setting priorities and coordinate efforts.

The main prescription is that the US should take a step backward. The US is no longer in the position to be the world leader, and it is something that it is increasingly shying away from. Nonetheless, they still continue to fund many of the programs being undertaken by NATO in Europe. This is not to say that the US should refrain from intervening if Europe is attacked, as it is bound by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to do so. It should, however, leave the acquisition of military technologies for the defence of Europe to Europeans. It might be a bit of tough love, but the only way to combat free riding is to stop providing an environment in which it flourishes. European cooperative security and defence has been making progress, with many of the main actors acknowledging that it will have to be in the confines of NATO. With this established, its time the US stops driving and finally occupies the position of a silent partner. Whether that would be possible, remains to be seen.


Krista Burns
Krista, a native of Guelph, Ontario, graduated from the University of Sussex with a MA in International Security. She also holds a BA Honours in International Relations and Politics from the University of East Anglia. Her main focus has been terrorism and counterterrorism, with a particular focus on Al Qaeda and its various splinter groups. However, she also has a basis in irregular warfare, ethnic conflict, and security relations.