Broadening the two-percent debate

Just in time for this week’s NATO meeting, Wolfgang Ischinger explains the weaknesses in Trump’s European defense spending demands. 

Since US President Donald Trump took office, US demands in the decades-old transatlantic burden sharing debate have reached a new, and serious, level of urgency. Whether Europeans like it or not, the defense spending debate will simply not go away.

Actually, Donald Trump and Angela Merkel do agree that more needs to be done. In fact, Berlin has recently announced an 8 percent increase in defense spending and intends to spend more in the coming years. At the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, Merkel reaffirmed her commitment to the declaration adopted at the Wales Summit in 2014. At that summit, NATO member states agreed “to aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s capability shortfalls.”

However, the way the Trump administration tries to impose a much more ambitious deadline, covering months instead of years, will actually make it more difficult, or even politically impossible, for some European leaders to act as Trump wants them to. For Germany, for example, with parliamentary elections scheduled for September, the perception of unwelcome US arm-twisting provides a great opportunity for all those who would like to run on an anti-Trump ticket.

What is more, current European procurement structures are simply not able to manage a much steeper increase in defense spending, and the European defense industry is unable to absorb the additional spending so easily. These problems are homemade, and they should, of course, be addressed and resolved. But that takes time. Right now, they stand in the way of a dramatic rise of defense budgets. 

In addition, even big European countries like Germany are too small to afford the full spectrum of armed forces in sufficient depth. Instead of wasting money – by looking only at national capabilities – Europeans should, as a first step, decide to sharply reduce the number of different weapons systems. Currently, European armies use six times more weapons systems than the US – with only a fraction of US fire power as a result. Instead, European NATO allies can and should benefit from economies of scale and should systematically begin to invest in joint procurement. A more balanced transatlantic burden sharing will only be realized through European pooling and sharing of military capabilities. In the end, what the United States wants to see is additional European military capabilities, not bigger European military pensions or modernized barracks in Europe – all items that allies might decide to list as relevant expenses towards the 2 per cent goal. By quickly and drastically increasing their defense budgets but spending the additional money unwisely, Europeans could do more harm than good.

Finally, what NATO has learned over the last couple of decades is that conflict prevention and conflict management require all instruments of our foreign policy toolbox, including the smart application of diplomatic and other non-military means. The international coalition may bomb Daesh out of Mosul, but military power alone will not bring sustainable peace. Or, as Secretary of Defense Mattis put it when heading U.S. Central Command, “if you do not fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

In the German debate, I have suggested to a broader three percent goal that would not only cover military spending but also investments in diplomacy, development, humanitarian aid and conflict prevention. This does not diminish our commitment to the two percent goal but aims to broaden the debate by also looking at those budget lines that are equally relevant to a more comprehensive definition of security. The increasingly volatile global security environment requires us to spend more – not just on defense, but also on diplomacy and development.

To be sure, many European governments have long been laggards in development spending as well – Germany included. But Berlin has worked to come closer to the 0.7 percent goal of GDP for official development assistance (ODA) recently. In 2015, Germany spent 0.52 percent on development, while the United States, in contrast, spent only 0.17 percent. If Trump and his supporters get their way, it might be even less in the future. As of now, the EU countries already spend about two-thirds of all economic aid worldwide. As Princeton professor Andrew Moravcsik put it, in this realm, the United States is “riding Europe’s superpower coattails.”[1]

If America wants more balanced burden-sharing and enhanced European contributions to tackle our joint security challenges, Washington should support and incentivize European efforts to do more together and invest in crucial capabilities that can be used by the Alliance, instead of insisting that individual NATO allies simply spend more no matter on what. It should also take into account that modern burden-sharing is more than what can be measured by a single figure. Just like health care, foreign policy is complicated.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-united-states-is-riding-europes-superpower-coattails/2016/04/14/90b3dd98-0193-11e6-9203-7b8670959b88_story.html

More about Wolfgang Ischinger

  • Wolfgang Ischinger , Professor of Security Policy and Diplomatic Practice | Founding Director, Centre for International Security