Europe Lacks the Will to Defend Itself

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Hoover Institution at Stanford University posed this question—Will NATO Europe fully partner with the U.S., or continue to downplay military readiness? The brief answer is that the leading economic powers in Europe have moved beyond national defense into a never-never land of post-military globalism. The liminal leap into self-induced delusion assumes that major conflict will never again embroil the European continent. So there isn’t enough money for a credible military force in Europe because there is not the political will. The moral is to the physical as four to one in battle, and Europe lost the spirit to fight long ago.

Since the end of World War II, the arc of governance in Western Europe has steadily spiraled toward democratic socialism. The social welfare state achieves and retains power when a majority of voters believe that the state is the proper arbiter of material comforts as well as security. A minority of malodorous capitalists is tolerated because they create the wealth the state distributes to the majority. Inside the U.S., this model of democratic socialism is gaining momentum in “blue” states such as California and Connecticut. The problem is that more government spending leads to slower (or negative) economic growth.1 Per capita income in the U.S. is $60,000, vs. $41,000 in the EU. So if democratic socialism is the reason for less military readiness, Europe’s neglect of its military would be understandable. There simply wouldn’t be enough money to go around.

Europe, however, has ample funds to provide for the common defense. The EU GDP is $19.9 trillion, compared to the U.S. with $19.4 trillion.2 Government spending as a percent of GDP is 38% in the U.S. and 46% in the EU3. So the European Union could easily afford to match the United States in defense spending. The fact is the EU has no intention of doing so because it chooses to believe there is no credible threat. And if one does arise, well, there’s always America to stand in. That’s the way it’s been since 1945, and that’s the way Europe collectively sees the future.

Let’s look back for a moment. In the midst of the Cold War in 1980, the Soviet Union was threatening to invade Poland. West Germany’s allocation to defense was then 3% of its GDP, compared to 5% in the U.S. President Reagan responded to the Soviet threat by increasing defense to 6.5% of GDP, while West Germany decreased its defense spending. Today, the U.S. devotes 3.5% of GDP to defense, and Germany, the economic giant of the EU, allocates 1.2%.

Why? Because as the bellwether of Europe, Germany’s worldview or Weltanschauung seems to that of a comfortable, overly complacent burgher. In 2005, then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder authorized a natural gas pipeline to Germany controlled by Russia’s Gazprom Corporation. Today, Schroeder is chairman of Rosneft, a Russian oil company4 and Russia will soon control 50% to 75% of Germany’s consumption of natural gas.5 Germany does business with Russia because it’s good for business. Why should America expect other European nations to act differently?

In summary, the U.S. in 2017 devoted 3.6 percent of GDP to defense, while European nations averaged 1.5 percent.6 The Trump administration did elicit from NATO Europe a pledge to spend 1.6 percent of its GDP on defense.7 Germany refused to meet that pledge.

There is no way out of this basic arithmetic. NATO Europe will not fully partner with the U.S. In Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Europe sent token forces, about 10% to America’s 90% on the frontlines, not 50-50. That’s just how it is and how it will be.

Granted, the only thing worse than fighting with allies is to fight without them. Europe will continue to downplay military readiness. That is still acceptable if our allies have the will to just show up for the fight. There’s a place on the line for troops willing to do battle, even if their training and equipment are shoddy.

It’s much more disturbing if the lack of military readiness reflects a European arc toward passivity.


1 Jeffrey Dorfman, “More Government Equals Less Growth, The Facts Are In,” Forbes (December 10, 2013).

2 Kimberley Amadeo, “World’s Largest Economies,” the balance (December 18, 2018).

3 See “Country List Government Spending to GDP,” Trading Economics and “What is the Total Government Spending in percent GDP,” USGovernmentSpending.com

4 Jim Geraghty, “Worried about Russia? Then Keep an Eye on Germany’s Former Chancellor,” National Review (July 11, 2018).

5 Reality Check team BBC News, “Trump: How much of Germany’s gas comes from Russia?” BBC (July 11, 2018). 

6 Jonathan Stearns, “NATO Members Post New Defense-Spending Increase,” Bloomberg (March 15, 2018).

7 Niall McCarthy, “Defense Expenditures of NATO Members Visualized,” Forbes (July 10, 2018).

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