When Trump Is Right: NATO Europeans’ Buck Passing, Free-Riding Shame

The Trump Administration does have a point about NATO member states’ defense spending, if nothing else. Photo: Video grab from YouTube

Hey, perhaps Trump could become the US President to manage to get the Europeans to start paying for their own defense, and build up their own militaries to be able to protect themselves!


The administration of the new US President Donald Trump may have already made a lot of controversial moves and may have adopted some questionable policies.

But there is one thing it is 110% right about, and that’s the demand that America’s European allies in NATO finally stop their outrageous free riding in defense spending, which has been going on forever.

Rather than actually developing military capabilities worthy of the name, which would be not just the fair and practical but also the dignified and honorable thing to do, Europeans from Portugal to Germany to Bulgaria have been passing the buck to the United States for as long as they have been members of the North Atlantic Alliance.

That is why one of Trump’s perhaps not so many unquestionable declarations on the campaign trail, and later in office, namely, that America’s NATO allies must do more (spend more on defense, build up their own militaries, and assume greater responsibility for their security) has been fully justified.

That is why US Secretary of State James Mattis’s ultimatum of sorts that he gave during his first trip to Brussels that the US was going to “moderate its commitment” to Europe’s security has been fully justified as well.

Failing Miserably at Defense Spending

It’s not just that both the Western Europeans and the Eastern Europeans in NATO have been failing to meet the already modest target of defense spending equaling 2% of their respective country’s GDP.

Everybody knows they have been failing miserably and unabashedly in that regard.

For a while now, only five NATO members, the US included (the other being the UK, Poland, Greece, and Estonia), have been meeting the target.

In 2016, NATO’s top spender America spent at least 3.61% of its huge GDP on defense. In contrast, France spent 1.78% of its GDP on defense, Germany 1.19% of its GDP, and Italy 1.11% of its GDP.

Even Turkey, whose military is conventionally known to be the second largest (after the US), and third “strongest” (after the US and Britain) in NATO, and “gets a lot of action,” spent only 1.56% of its GDP on defense last year

Canada, the Alliance’s other North American member, in addition to the US, is doing even worse, with its 2016 defense spending amounting to only 0.99% of its GDP.

Canada, however, is not in Europe, and while it, too, borders the Russians by sea, it doesn’t have a huge land border with Vladimir Putin’s Russia  – a country that has demonstrated its ability and preparedness to encroach against its neighbors since the 2008 War in Georgia, the 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and the onset of the pro-Russian insurgency in the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine.

Not to mention that today’s Russia is the successor to both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, both of which have invaded Europe numerous times in pursuit of their imperialist goals.

Free-riding on American Interests

Not unlike Canada, the United States isn’t in Europe either, but, luckily for the shameless free-riding Europeans, one of its most lasting (and sensible at that) foreign policy principles has been to deny a peer competitor the opportunity to occupy the most important industrial centers of the giant continent of Europe + Asia.

This is George Kennan’s good old Cold War rule, which has worked like a charm (backed by lots of money and power) and has yielded countless benefits to the United States itself, but also, by implication, for the Western Europeans (during the Iron Curtain era).

Other beneficiaries are those East Europeans who managed to catch the Euro-Atlantic integration train in the 1990s and 2000s (some did it literally at the last minute, like Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania).

So the Europeans have been passing the buck to America, riding free on the American security train, not feeling a tiny bit ashamed that somebody else has been paying to make sure that they are defended.

The fact that somebody has gotten their own foreign, security, and economic policy benefits from that doesn’t make the situation less shameful for the Europeans. If anything, it makes it more so.

Not being able to defend yourself in the increasingly messed up world of the 21st century is a recipe for disaster, and so is being rich economically and weak militarily.

The fact that most Europeans managed to establish this supranational, post-modern political miracle that is the European Union is no excuse, either.

If anything, it makes their weakness even more disgraceful,

“So here is this great space that we created in which nobody goes to war any more, and we just settle out disputes through negotiation, mediation, moderation, and the rule of law; but, hey, we are too weak-minded, or pseudo-liberal, or delusional to realize that the rest of the world out there is still an ugly place, and that this wonderful tender child we’ve raised can be bullied, kidnapped, raped, or killed at any moment…”

European Hypocrisy

Two more counts make the European NATO members’ situation even more morally deplorable.

First, the money they save on defense is squandered on all kinds of other things that make their societies more inefficient, and outright lazier.

In Western Europe, the money goes to support a vast and highly questionable welfare system.

In some more backward Eastern European NATO and EU member states, the money is spent on spoiling their police and other law enforcement institutions, whose employees don’t even need it since they get as rich as Rockefellers from bribes and other corruption means.

Second, while the Europeans systematically fail to spend enough on their own defense and rely on free-riding on America’s interest in it, anti-Americanism remains a big sentiment in NATO and EU member states.

Not that the Americans are perfect (French leader Charles de Gaulle once said that “the Americans will do all the stupidities they can think of, plus some which are beyond imagination”) – but if that is not some supreme hypocrisy, I don’t know what is.

“It’s Complicated” for NATO and the EU 

It is true that European security has been complicated by the failure of both sides of the Atlantic to figure out how to merge and/or complement NATO and EU defense capabilities: there are European countries that are both NATO and EU members, NATO members that are not in the EU, and EU members that are not in NATO. Then there is the special case of Turkey, and there is even Canada.

Nobody has been able to solve this EU-NATO riddle, the result being that EU defense capabilities remain undeveloped so as not to duplicate NATO’s.

But then the EU and NATO members don’t contribute enough to NATO because they have the EU and its ways of doing things.

Paradoxically, the US insistence that its allies in Europe should do more about their own defense is also in these nations’ best interest.

A giant peace-loving, democratic, and truly secure European colossus could rise, and the fact that America insists on its building up its own militaries only means that the United States is well aware that a militarily “capable European Union, even if it somehow develops into another hyperpower, can never end up in an armed conflict with it because of the two great democratic systems of Europe and America.”

Sure, the US and the EU have been at odds before, but they have plenty of means to resolve any differences (remember the US Steel Tariffs and the EU Orange Juice Tariffs case of 2002–2003).

The sad truth, however, is that without the United States, the European Union and the non-EU European NATO members are practically defenseless when faced with an opponent of the scale of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

European contributions to NATO missions so far have often been problematic in terms of efficiency (except for the “special relationship” forces of the UK, which are traditionally well integrated with the Americans).

Especially in actual combat situations, it would be easier and more efficient to leave the fighting to the Americans rather than decrease the overall efficiency with the European input.

Perhaps, and actually, hopefully, the Trump administration will at last manage to force the Europeans to start paying for their own defense, to build up their own militaries, and to finally occupy a moral high ground for doing the right and honorable thing.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis told his NATO counterparts in Brussels that the American taxpayer could no longer be the sole sponsor of Western values, and that Americans can no longer care more for the European children’s future than the Europeans do themselves.

Hopefully, the buck passing Europeans have felt some shame and will act upon it.


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