Earlier this week, Defense Secretary James Mattis met his counterparts from other NATO member-states at a gathering in Brussels. There, he told them in diplomatic but no uncertain terms, that the U.S. expected other NATO countries to start spending their share on defense, that this was the “political reality” in the U.S. and a “fair demand.” He was backed up by the defense chiefs of the U.K., which is one of a handful of countries that meets the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP for defense spending, and Germany, which is not. Mattis said if NATO members couldn’t meet their commitments, the U.S. would have to moderate its own.
Yesterday, Mattis’ reasonable and totally expected demand that NATO members spend as much on defense as NATO calls for was met with a bizarre response from the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker. At a speech at the Munich Security Conference, Juncker recommended that other European Union members who are also in NATO resist U.S. demands, arguing humanitarian aid and foreign development spending was also spending toward security. “It has been the American message for many, many years,” Juncker said of Mattis’ call on NATO members to meet their spending commitments. “I am very much against letting ourselves be pushed into this.”
During the election, commentators freaked when then candidate Donald Trump suggested haphazardly in an interview that if Russia invaded one of the Baltic countries he’d have to determine whether they’ve met their commitment to NATO before responding. The Trumpian answer was interpreted as a threat to renege on NATO commitments. Less than a year later, it’s Europe that’s embracing ignoring its NATO commitments. Juncker’s suggestion is preposterous. Foreign aid spending may contribute to security (though I doubt this assertion—such spending is just as if not far more likely to foster dependence and hinder development in recipient countries), but it is a wholly separate endeavor from NATO.
Of the EU NATO countries, Greece is the biggest spender as a proportion of its GDP—spending 2.38 percent. Debt-ridden Greece gets kicked around a lot by its fellow EU members, who are rightfully weary of bailing Greece out of its profligate domestic spending. If Greece can afford to meet its NATO commitments (and Estonia and Poland, two developing former Communist countries), there’s no reason for the far prosperous Western European NATO countries to do the same. Germany spent just 1.19 percent of its GDP on defense last year—it is a fiscally responsible country that could easily meet the NATO target if it wanted to.
When I wrote about Mattis’ comments earlier this week, I suggested the U.S. do both—demand Europe meet its commitments and moderate its own. Juncker’s petulant and politically tone-deaf response to Mattis’ call opens up the possibility for the U.S. to do both. Just because NATO members have for a long time failed to meet NATO spending targets does not mean such an arrangement is sustainable. The election of Donald Trump should’ve signaled that to Europe.