Back when the United States had no qualms about maintaining an enormous defense establishment, I could see why the Europeans wanted to let us do all the nasty work, maintaining only nominal defenses themselves. But now? President Obama has devoted the last five years to reducing our commitments abroad, shrinking our armed forces, and making us, withal, much less reliable allies than we used to be.
The European response? To make their defense budgets even smaller.
From the Wall Street Journal:
The Obama theory of “collective security” is that as the U.S. retreats from its historic commitments in Europe and the Middle East, allies will step up to deter aggressors and protect Western interests. NATO budget cuts suggest otherwise.
The cuts have created “gaps in meeting core NATO tasks” and resulted in “forces that are not ready, not trained, and not sufficiently equipped,” according to a 2012 study by the U.S. National Defense University. In plain English, this means that if Vladimir Putin sets his sights on NATO’s eastern periphery—by targeting the Baltic states, for example—the alliance may not have the capability to resist even if it has the political will.
European powers in recent years have shelved entire divisions and weapons systems. The British Royal Navy doesn’t operate a proper aircraft carrier. The Netherlands in 2012 disbanded its heavy-armor division, and France and the U.K. each now field a mere 200 main battle tanks. France has cut its orders of Rafale combat jets to six a year from 11. This isn’t even a Maginot Line.
Most alliance members are also dangerously demobilized: Germany last year announced plans to cut its troops to no more than 180,000 from 545,000 at the end of the Cold War. The French military has shrunk to 213,000 from 548,000 in 1990. The U.K. now has 174,000 armed forces, down from 308,000 in 1990.
It’s not just the “Obama theory” that’s in question here. Lots of people have supposed that, if the United States scaled back its commitments to Europe, then the Europeans would very naturally take on the defense of Europe themselves.
Way back during the late 1980s and 1990s, no less a figure than Irving Kristol suggested that NATO, at least as then constituted (with the United States as very much the senior partner), was close to having outlived its usefulness. Immediately after the Second World War, Europe needed American protection. But by the late 1970s Europe had not only recovered but become, roughly, just as rich as we—and much, much richer than the Soviet Union. By continuing to permit the Europeans to free ride on our defense budget, Kristol argued, we were infantilizing them. We should cut back, he insisted, forcing the Europeans to defend themselves—forcing them, that is, to grow up.
The argument made sense to me then—and still does. But in recent years we’ve effectively put it to the test—and instead of taking their own defense upon themselves the Europeans have become…still more infantile. Good Lord. The United Kingdom—”Hail, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!”—without a single working aircraft carrier.
I just don’t understand. Why should this be?