2017-02-22 By Danny Lam
Secretary Mattis delivered an impassioned plea for increased defense spending by NATO allies at the Brussels summit.
“If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense,” Mattis made clear.
NATO, including the US, cut defense spending from 2010 onwards in the aftermath of the Great recession. As recently as 2009, America spent 5.3% GDP on defense, and NATO Europe spent 1.7%. As of 2015, US expenditures fell to 3.6% GDP, while NATO Europe averages 1.43%. Critically, in 2015, large, major, healthy economies like Germany (1.2%) and Canada (1%) are spending well below their capacity.
How will allies respond to the end of year (2017) deadline set by the Trump Administration?
If history is any guide, Europeans are more than capable of endless dialogue and in this case it is the dialogue of the deaf.
Exhortations by the Trump Administration to increase spending have fallen on deaf ears.
Chancellor Merkel will only raise spending gradually to 2% GDP by 2024.
Jean-Claude Junker advocated resisting American demands on the grounds that development and humanitarian aid is also spending for “security”.
Defense Minister Sajjan’s Enron grade accounting moved defense spending up to 1.3 – 1.5% GDP – well short of the 2% NATO standard even before deductions for wasteful spending like Canada’s infamous CAD $4,800 a copy Bolt Action Canadian Ranger Rifles – Comparable weapons available at retailers like Cabelas for about CAD$300.
Europe, likewise, waste an estimated €20.6 billion annually that result in “a cost of more than half of that of the US, Europeans obtain only a tenth of the [military] capacity.”
Staggering wastage like this was acceptable in peacetime, but not when Canada and EU are unwilling to raise defense budgets while facing real, serious existential security threats like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.
Since no NATO countries had any difficulty financing abrupt rises in social spending on things like refugee programs (e.g. Germany spent .35% GDP in 2016 according to IMF), during the past few years, or running deficits, it is hard to believe that fiscally sound NATO allies like Canada are unable to raise defense spending by year end if their regime wanted to.
The Trump Administration’s demands for increased expenditures will more likely than not, result in recalcitrant allies engaging in a round of whining and creative accounting for the May NATO Summit.
Any improvement in burden sharing will have to be sharply discounted even if the 2% goal is reached. Though there are a few symbolic moves. Realistically, the 2% target must be accompanied with major reforms to ensure the efficacy of spending as well as increased spending — neither is likely forthcoming anytime soon in any serious way from NATO allies.
Spending is no longer an effective and useful gauge of capabilities for gauging a NATO member’s treaty obligations under Article 3 “by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid… maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
For example, NATO in Europe, at present, consist of mostly light formations that have been conclusively demonstrated to be unsuitable against Russian New Generation Warfare used in the Crimea and Ukraine. Except for Norway and a few other NATO members, there is no serious move to urgently field counters by key players like Germany beyond symbolic deployments to show “resolve”.
Canada, historically the biggest whiner of NATO, is presently going through the motions of “major procurement” for fighters and surface combatants that do not meet the self-evident requirement for Ballistic Missile Defense against North Korean threats. That, plus the failure to join the Missile Defense Program or aid allies with not so much as a protest against North Korea’s latest missile test, disqualify Canada under NATO Treaty Article 3 for aid under Article 5. None of these facts matter to the Trudeau regime, who insisted they are doing more than enough for their allies. With Canadians, there is not even a consensus about existential threats to Canada or allies.
The question is, what levers and inducements do the Trump Administration have to enforce the demand for fairer burden sharing among allies?
There is the blunt instrument of withdrawing support, reducing commitments to allies like NATO but not much else. After all, these are sovereign states and there is no mechanism for enforcing commitments in the NATO treaty except for chiding them for failing to meet Article 3 obligations — which up until now, is ambiguous.
As it stands, details of commitments to allies by the US are shrouded in secrecy. Treaties like NATO and other bilateral pacts like US-Japan, Taiwan Relations Act, NORAD, are worded in the most general terms.
Thus, NATO Article 5 calls for “armed attack against one or more … shall be considered an attack against them all” triggering “such action as [individual NATO ally] deems necessary”.
The lesson from World War I is that detailed agreements that publically committed nations to go to war can result in seemingly minor events cascading into war. Treaty obligations trigger war plans that once set in motion, was difficult to unwind.
Thus, the US have a longstanding policy of keeping details of commitments known to very few and secret.
The specifics and details of security guarantees given by the US are only known to a handful of allied senior officials in each country. Thus, such details can be amended and alter or changed as needed. Whether the threat or actual implementation of such action to water down commitments, which by its nature must remain secret, will be enough to change the behavior of politicians like the Trudeau or Merkel regime is an open question.
Regimes like those of Merkel and Trudeau are committed to their course of undermining the Trump Administration’s demands for better burden sharing.
And why not?
Delay, ignore, whine worked against GW Bush and Obama Administrations.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis hosts a joint press meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 15, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)
Why shouldn’t it work again?
Just wait Trump out – he be gone at most in 7 years.
Liberal Internationalists will be back in charge in Washington.
Under the existing US system, the worse that can happen is that Trump water down security guarantees, withdraw troops and pre-positioned equipment, close bases, cut joint training and exercise, and other symbolic moves, the most dramatic being withdraw from NATO under Article 13.
But at the end of the day, if there is a real threat to Europe, the US will be compelled to intervene anyways.
If the US did withdraw from NATO, it is not obvious that Europe will break out in war, or the enfeebled Russia will have designs on Europe in the near future.
Though it is very obvious that terrorism and Russia will remain as issues.
What can the Trump Administration do about fair weather allies?
There is a way ahead if the Administration makes this a serious priority rather than simply a campaign tweet or bumper sticker.
Editor’s Note: Danny Lam will continue his discussion of an alternative way ahead to the dialogue of the deaf on defense spending.
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