Is Europe’s Military Defense America’s Responsibility?

Politics - February 13, 2024

The geopolitical cooperation and the cultural-historical relationship between Europe and the United States are in flux, according to various assessors. But whose fault is it really?

Many pretend to be upset that Donald Trump recently reproduced a dialogue he had with a European head of government when he was president 2017-2021. At the time, most European politicians, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, refused to live up to the NATO benchmark of two percent of GDP in defense spending.

Sure, the choice of words that Trump used are unfortunate, but in essence the American presidential candidate has a point: Why should the United States hold Europe under its arms? Why?

That it was necessary in the 1940s when much of Europe lay in ruins after World War II is one thing. But Europe soon rose from the ruins and has enjoyed good economic development for many decades. So why should the US continue to stand for Europe’s military defense? I have not heard anyone able to give a logical answer to that question.

After the fall of communism

For my own part, I think that one explanation is that the USA became the only superpower after the fall of the Wall and Soviet Communism. In the 1990s, we got an almost monopolistic world order. Many spoke of the United States as the only world empire that was both the world police with superior military power, a strong economy and at the head of a Western world that believed in its values of freedom of expression, democracy and the rule of law.

And Europe came to be dominated by a persistent belief in “soft power”. It was through talks and dialogue in international institutions that disputes would be resolved.

Then you don’t need a deterrent defense force. Several countries disarmed. Sweden abolished conscription and lowered defense costs from three to under one percent of GDP. Most military installations were left to rust. Military facilities were demolished or sold.

This naivety meant that Europe made itself defenseless.

A brutal awakening

But in recent years, these hopes have proven to be dangerously naive. While the West has been talking, other powers have grown stronger. We have now a multipolar world. The US is no longer by far the strongest. And it is torn apart by strong internal ideological clashes where even the existence of the police is questioned from the left. Anarchy reigns in universities whose principals (at, for example, Harvard University) do not dare to distance themselves from students supporting mass murder of civilians. (Specifically: don’t dare to distance yourself from the Islamist terrorist organization Hamas mass murder and rape of civilians in Israel October 7, 2023.)

With its economic growth, China has become an increasingly dominant player on the world stage, not least by buying up infrastructure in Africa and parts of Europe.

Russia shows that “hard power” is still superior. The invasion of armored vehicles and artillery in Ukraine on February 22, 2022 was a death blow to the European ideas of soft power through diplomacy and international institutions.

Iran is waging proxy wars through Hamas and Hezbollah against civilians in Israel and through Houthi militias in Yemen against civilian cargo ships of democratic countries in the Red Sea. Iran kidnaps Western civilians to force a prisoner exchange.

Hard power applies

In this situation, the West, i.e. Europe and the USA, should get along. We are responsible for invaluable achievements in wealth development and scientific progress for more than two centuries. The rest of the world has not contributed mush that can be compared to the medical and technological development that the West not only created for itself, but generously contributed to the entire world.

But it is not the constructive that drives the world in our time. Actors outside the West do not hesitate to use hard military power. And their choices determine what applies. It is the hard military power that decides. Every time.

The US has contributed far beyond what is reasonable

After World War II, it was natural that the United States, as the leading military power on the victorious side, was given a paramount role in the defense of Western Europe against Stalin’s communist expansion.

But after the fall of the wall and communism, European countries should be more responsible for their own security. But instead, they dismantled their national defense forces to an even greater degree.

Partly because they believed in soft power, partly because they knew that they had the USA in the background who could take the hit if something happened.

But international cooperation cannot work like that. One party cannot unrestrainedly exploit the good will of the other party for any length of time.

The American people are speaking out

The ones who have had to pay the high military expenses for the US defense force are the American people. And they’ve had enough.

Donald Trump is a catalyst for the dissatisfaction the American people feel towards constantly having to pay for the safety and security of other parts of the world.

Even if it was vulgarly expressed, Trump actually has a point when, during his presidency, he criticized European countries for not standing up for their own defense, brazenly counting on the US to “pay the bill”.

Trump demanded then, and demands with his new statement one thing: That European states put the financial resources on their defense forces that NATO cooperation has established: two percent of GDP. Otherwise, he threatens not to defend America’s allies.

Live up to NATO solidarity

After all, it is not Trump who violates the idea of solidarity within the NATO alliance, but the countries that evade having the military defense that has long been agreed upon should apply.

The major countries in Europe are betraying the defense alliance. Despite increasing defense budgets since Trump’s presidency, they are not living up to their commitments. Germany (1.6), Spain (1.3), France (1.9), and Italy (1.5) are clearly below what NATO membership stipulates.

Smaller countries also miss the bill: Belgium (1.1), Sweden (1.4), Slovakia (1.4), Czech Republic (1.5), Portugal (1.5), Denmark (1.7), the Netherlands (1.7), Norway (1.7) and Bulgaria (1.8).

Only ten countries live up to the promise of 2.0 percent of GDP (source: IFO).

Everyone is counting on the United States – which are spending the most, 3.5 percent of its GDP, on defense spending.

Europe threatening the transatlantic link

It is clear from these figures that it is not Trump who threatens the transatlantic link, at least not in terms of fulfilling promises made.

Now the cooperation between the “new world” and the “old” is not only a matter of common defense and security policy. We have a deep and important cultural-historical friendship. The Enlightenment tradition that has given the West such an advantage in the development of humanity started in Europe, but today has its strongest foothold in the United States, as evidenced by, for example, the number of scientific Nobel Prizes.

It is wrong when European debaters claim that it is Trump who threatens our transatlantic community by isolating himself and abandoning the country’s international responsibilities. It is we in Europe who are failing by continuing to try to cut corners and dump their military defense in the Americans lap.

The best way to appease Donald Trump and save cooperation across the Atlantic is for us in our European countries to make sure we live up to what we promised. To show the United States that we do not intend to just take advantage of the American people, but are willing to contribute to the common security.

An acknowledgment that we in Europe have shied away for a long time but now intend to take our responsibility, would be the best geopolitical way to strengthen the democracies in the West against the emerging dictatorships.

That would be the best way to face the threats to democracy that so many people talk about, but which you don’t connect to what sacrifices you yourself are prepared to make to strengthen the position of democracies in the world.