Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Defending the Deadbeats

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 2, 2016 --  

America's NATO allies are worried about Russia, just not worried enough to increase military budgets.

When "little green men" began appearing in military uniforms without insignia in the Crimean capital of Sevastopol two and a half years ago, things did not bode well for Ukraine. The local Russian population was quickly whipped up by Russian agents as special forces seized power. Poorly-equipped Ukrainian military forces were besieged and expelled. A flash referendum on joining Russia handily passed. Russian-backed military forces then began grabbing more Russian-speaking territory on the country's Eastern fringe.

As gripping as these images were for observers in America, they were utterly terrifying for those in the Baltics. Like Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were ruled by Moscow until 1991, and each has a sizeable ethnic Russian population, uncomfortably concentrated on the border of their giant neighbor.

These countries understandably fear suffering a similar dismantling of their countries by a resurgent and aggressive Russia seeking to distract its population from the flagging economy with appeals to nationalism through military adventures.

The big difference in the Baltics is NATO. All three countries are full members in the Western military alliance that promises to treat an attack on one as an attack on all. The alliance has stationed token combat units in the Baltics and set up a rapid response unit to be deployed quickly in the event of a crisis.1 This is a tripwire designed to bring NATO and America into a full scale war with Russia if needed to defend the Baltics.

Is this crazy? Should America really risk nuclear Armageddon in order to keep three tiny countries out of Moscow's orbit? Presidential candidate Donald Trump hinted at this absurdity when he suggested America may not come to the defense of the Baltic countries, unless they had "fulfilled their obligations to us."2

The statement about "obligations" is a reference to the failure of many European nations to meet the NATO target of spending a minimum two percent of GDP on their armed forces. While Estonia is on target to spend just over this amount this year, Latvia, Lithuania and the vast majority of NATO members are not.3

Given that the United States spends 3.6 percent of GDP on its military4, the obvious conclusion is that many European countries are freeloading on America's funding of NATO forces. They are happy to take the security guarantees of the United States coming across the ocean to protect them against their bullying Russian neighbor, but they are unwilling to pay their fair share of the costs.

This has been a problem for decades, dating back to the Cold War. Back then, it was easier to make the case that countering the global Soviet threat was worth America's subsidy of its European allies. This was especially try when their economies were struggling to recover in the aftermath of the Second World War.

But those days are long gone. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw Russia reduced to a nation of 150 million (far smaller and poorer than the European Union), and it's conventional forces increasingly hollow and decrepit.

Before Russian President Vladimir Putin began rebuilding the nation's armed forces a decade ago, Europe was in an easy position to eclipse Russia's military might simply through modest investment in their militaries. They failed to do so. Even now, in the wake of the dismantling of Ukraine's territory, military budgets in most NATO countries are well below the two percent target, signaling that nations intend to continue looking to American taxpayers to fund Europe's defense.

The fact that the list of nations refusing to meet this two percent target includes Latvia and Lithuania rightfully raises questions about whether they deserve to have America come to their defense. If the Russian threat really is so great to Latvia and Lithuania that American soldiers be put in harm's way and America should risk getting nuked to protect them, shouldn't the countries be willing to pony up two percent of their GDP as a token contribution to their defense?

Whatever the problems of NATO contributions, as long as America is a member, it must honorably uphold its commitments. As a candidate for commander in chief, Trump is terribly wrong to publicly suggest he would not come to the defense of a NATO ally. His Russia-friendly positions are generally bad for America and among the many reasons rational voters should shun him. But Trump is absolutely correct that deadbeat NATO countries must be taken to task for their failure to provide for their own defense.

Russia is a major threat to Europe, much less so to the United States. If European NATO countries are unwilling to pay the lion's share of their defense costs, it is high time to reconsider America's membership in the alliance.


1. The Guardian, Britain Commits 650 Troops to NATO's Baltic Forces to Counter Vladimir Putin, July 8, 2016

2. New York Times, Donald Trump Sets Conditions for Defending NATO Allies Against Attack, July 20, 2016

3. Washington Post, Donald Trump Cast Doubt on the Baltics' Involvement in NATO. Here's What They Actually Do, July 21, 2016

4. Ibid