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NATO members should show their commitment by meeting the 2 percent benchmark for defense spending.
When NATO heads of state gather in Brussels on May 25th for the alliance’s 2017 summit, President Donald Trump will no doubt be the center of attention. Indeed, the announcement that he would actually attend – which was always a safe assumption for past presidents – made the news. During last year’s presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump drew attention in both the U.S. and abroad for his claim that NATO was “obsolete,” and, though he has revoked that claim, he continues to argue that allies must spend more on their defense.
That he will continue to make that case is a dead certainty. But, in doing so, he is not breaking new ground. President Barack Obama also expressed concern about low-levels of spending across Europe, and his first Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, declared himself “the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries” to admonish NATO allies for not meeting the alliance’s target that each member devote at least 2 percent of its GDP to defense.
When NATO convened in Prague for the 2002 Summit, it faced a point of transformation. With new states ascending to the alliance and September 11th in the not-so-distant past, the members committed themselves to strengthening the alliance’s ability to address a wide range of threats. It was in service to that aim that the members established 2 percent as the minimum level of acceptable defense spending.
Fifteen years later, what was once a floor has become more of a ceiling for the vast majority NATO members. Only five currently meet the guideline: Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States.
It’s true that not every nation can hit that level overnight, nor is it reasonable to think that a sudden massive infusion of resources would be properly spent. On the other hand, the inability of these countries to hit that benchmark tomorrow is no excuse for past indolence or for future indecisiveness.
While the 2 percent benchmark is somewhat arbitrary, it is not unreasonable. Across NATO, militaries are short on munitions, lacking key military hardware, and facing training and readiness issues. As the 2011 NATO campaign against Libya revealed, outside the U.S., alliance members are far from prepared to carry out sustained conventional combat operations.
Germany Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel captured the mood of many who oppose higher defense budgets when he declared it “better to talk about better spending instead of more spending.” Yet the belief in the redemptive power of better spending alone – one often practiced in the U.S. as well – places too much faith in the power of institutional efficiencies. Defense bureaucracies will never employ their resources perfectly – government bodies never do.
While efforts to increase “smarter” defense efforts by greater collaboration among allies shouldn’t be dismissed as pointless, experience indicates there is a limit to what sovereign states are willing “to pool and share.” In short, conditioning more defense spending on perfecting how it is spent first is a recipe for never spending more.
Moreover, today’s 2 percent is not your father’s 2 percent; nations must pay more for their defense now than in the past. Both people and weapons systems cost more. As nations across Europe transitioned from conscription to all-volunteer forces in the post-Cold War era, they envisioned significant savings in personnel costs as they reduced the size of their forces. But the savings did not materialize as expected because a smaller but more “professional” force costs more to recruit, train, and maintain.
NATO members cannot continue to cut force structure in search of savings. Not only do the cuts earn diminishing level of savings, but, more importantly, they also run the risk of rendering forces too small to adequately support day-to-day NATO exercises and missions.
Weapons and equipment costs have also increased as they have grown more complex and militarily effective. This outcome can be seen clearly in the United States, where new aircraft, ground vehicles and ships have higher price tags than previous generations of weapons did. And, as costs have risen and budgets shrank, governments have tended to reduce the number of new systems being bought or they have spread procurements out over longer periods of time, resulting in higher long-term costs. Just like an individual consumer, militaries buying dribs and drabs, as opposed to in bulk, pay more for each item.
Two percent of GDP is not a perfect metric for defense spending. Nor is it meant to suggest that other security accounts, such as foreign aid, be stripped so as to reach the pledged level. But it is a sign, an assurance, that allies do take seriously their North Atlantic Treaty commitment to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” If that requires a slight reordering of national spending priorities after years of increased spending on welfare and domestic programs, then, that seems a small price to pay for an alliance that is far from being “obsolete.”
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