In an op-ed written for the Strategic Studies Institute, LTC Raymond A. Millen analyses the historical and recent development of commitments to common defense in NATO (thanks to Pamela for the submission):
Few recall the contentious deliberations at the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and its European allies regarding military contributions to the Alliance. The Truman administration expected the European powers to reconstitute their armies once they had recovered economically. But, having little faith in the American security guarantee, European statesmen refused to raise sufficient forces for defense without a tangible commitment from the United States. With no movement on the matter, the United States relented, deploying several divisions to NATO in 1949. Yet, the European reciprocal pledge did not materialize.A quick review of historic defense expenditure shows that the picture Millen gives of free-riding Europeans was at least delayed. The UK and France spent a larger percentage of their GDP on defense in 1950 than the USA, and their share of defense expenditure only really started to decline between 1960 and 1970.
With security assured through collective defense and the U.S. nuclear umbrella, European states progressively invested in social welfare programs that demanded a greater portion of gross domestic products (GDP). And social welfare states are voraciously self-indulgent. During this transformation, an interesting pattern of behavior manifested. Rather than share collective defense equitably, member states attempted to shift security burdens subtly to other members. Other than voicing annoyance, the United States, as a global superpower in a bipolar world, accepted this behavior because the larger goal of peace in Europe remained intact.
Millen attributes the lack of spending to the existence of extensive social welfare systems, the greediness of the European electorate and the incapacity of parliamentary democracies to push through unpopular spending:
Fundamentally, European affinity for extravagant social welfare programs, the obsession with cutting military spending, and a distinct predilection for peacekeeping operations are manifestations of European political institutions. Because of their pluralistic design, parliamentary governments tend to be unduly influenced by the mercurial passions of the electorate.A rather elitist view. Millen does not enter into cultural differences, but it might be that Europeans just are a bit more pacifist than Americans. If Europeans have been free-riding on the security umbrella provided by the United States of America, the question arises why the USA has not drawn its own consequences and left NATO. There are several possible answers for that, some of which are partially mentioned by Millen.
- NATO serves the foreign policy interests of the United States in Europe. It is a tool for ensuring that Central and Eastern Europe don't fall into Moscow's orbit again. America would have less success dealing with these countries on a bilateral basis outside of the institutional setting of NATO, because it would have to compete with Western Europe.
- America needs to spend as much as it does on defense either way in order to secure its global interests. NATO is not really an extra cost. Europeans get to profit from the security guarantee NATO offers, but do not have any influence on the 'out of area' military policy of the United States to which they are now asked to contribute. Both sides have limited profit from the arrangement.
- America would have higher defense costs without NATO because it would have less certainty about European support (from intelligence to logistics to military contributions). The same goes for the Europeans. Threatening to end NATO if Europe does not contribute more troops to out of area missions is like playing a game of chicken: if both sides play to win the result is huge mutual costs. The USA has twitched, so Europe gets a free ride.
But perhaps there are also reasons not related to realpolitik.
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