Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Bad Bad Cop

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 3, 2018 --  

Germany sorely deserves American pressure to take responsibility for its own defense. But Donald Trump is ill-suited to make the case.

As European allies prepare for the NATO summit next week, they are bracing for yet another confrontation with America's volatile and combative president. At issue is the fact that European nations spend a far smaller share of their incomes on the military than does the United States, effectively saddling America with a disproportionate share of the alliance's costs.

President Trump reportedly sent a confrontational letter to Germany and several other European allies, complaining about their failure to meet spending targets and warning of consequences, potentially including a draw-down of American forces.(1) The United States currently has 32,000 troops based in Germany.2

Europeans and U.S. military leaders have raised concerns that lack of unity only benefits Russia. While they are right on this point, it doesn't make Trump's complaints about lack of European military contributions less valid. By perennially underfunding their militaries and failing to meet NATO spending targets, European nations have brought a crisis upon themselves.

The problem with Trump's scolding, of course, is that he has obliterated his moral authority to speak out on issues of fairness. In the past month alone he has rightfully earned international outrage by separating migrant children from their parents and by picking a fight with Canada, America's closest ally. By taking up the cause of NATO freeloading at a time of his intense international unpopularity, Trump risks tarnishing a righteous cause.

To be clear, American complaints about low levels of European military spending long predate Donald Trump, with discord dating at least to the Reagan era. In 2014, President Barak Obama successfully pressured NATO leaders to commit to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense within 10 years.3 And while only four years have gone by since that time, many countries, including Germany, show little evidence of honoring those commitments.

Germany, for example, spent only 1.24 percent of its GDP on defense in 2017 according to NATO figures, only a tiny rise from when it committed to increase spending four years ago.4 This is for a country that has the largest economy in NATO and the fourth largest economy in the world. Clearly it could spend more, yet Germany chooses not to do so, safe in the knowledge that there are 32,000 American troops keeping it secure.

Opposition to increased military spending in Europe comes from many quarters. Left-leaning political parties typically oppose it on idealogical grounds, for the same reason that left-leaning Americans oppose more military spending. Conservative parties favor keeping spending in check in all areas including the military, as part of fiscal discipline. But while these are legitimate positions, there is no getting around the fact that a country's defense spending must be in proportion to the country's security risks. And Germany, to put it frankly, lives in a bad neighborhood.

Germany was invaded twice in the past century, the last time during World War II when vengeance-seeking Russian armies occupied its eastern half, annexing most of that territory to Russia and its Cold War-era allies of Poland and Lithuania. The rump territory of East Germany was ruled as a vassal state of the Soviet Union for the next 45 years, ending only in 1990.

More recently in 2014, Russian armies invaded, occupied and annexed parts of eastern Ukraine, a candidate member of the European Union, of which Germany is the de-facto leader. Nervousness about this invasion is precisely what managed to get Europeans onboard with 2 percent spending targets just four years ago.

There is no doubt that Germany pinches pennies on defense because it knows it can rely on American military largesse. Its refusal to change its ways is absolutely worthy of consequences. Those consequences don't necessarily have to involve America abandoning its engagement in Europe. Poland, a NATO member on the border of the former Soviet frontier, has long requested permanent US bases, and last month offered up to $2 billion to make this happen.5 It's unclear if a shift of some forces from Germany to Poland could be accomplished without significant costs to U.S. taxpayers, but if possible, it would be a good way to punish German freeloading without rewarding Russia.

Of course there is no indication that the Trump administration would take that approach, especially given that it would anger Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump seems to have some kind of ill-advised bromance. Trump plans to meet Putin in Finland on July 16, right after the NATO summit. A larger concern is that he will make a foolish deal that sells Russian-occupied Ukraine down the river. This would be disastrous.

The fact that this worry overshadows Trump's legitimate pressure on NATO members to increase spending is terribly unfortunate. NATO has long needed an American president willing to play the role of bad cop. Now that it finally has one, Trump's despicable idiosyncrasies provide Europeans an out that will allow them shirk their responsibilities yet again.

Related Web Columns:

Defending the Deadbeats, August 2, 2016


1. New York Times, Trump Warns NATO Allies to Spend More on Defense, or Else, July 2, 2018

2. Stars and Stripes, Former Army Europe Boss: Pulling US Troops From Germany Would Be a Big Win for Russia, July 2, 2018

3. Wall Street Journal, NATO Leaders to Vow to Lift Military Spending, September 4, 2014

4. NATO, Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2010-2017), March 15, 2018

5. Defense News, Does a Permanent Base in Poland Make Sense? May 29, 2018

6. New York Times, Finnish Neutrality Key to Helsinki Hosting US-Russia Summit, June 28, 2018