NATO Summit 2012: Without New Investment by Europeans, NATO’s Future Is in Doubt

At the NATO Summit in Chicago this weekend, leaders will gather to discuss a number of issues facing the alliance. Top of the agenda will be Afghanistan, improving NATO’s military capabilities, and extending NATO’s partnerships with regional and global partners. However, nothing agreed at the summit will matter if America’s European allies do not start spending what is required on defense.

Defense spending inside NATO is increasingly declining. As Libya and other NATO campaigns have demonstrated time and again, Europe relies too much on the U.S. to pick up the slack during alliance operations. This is mainly the result of reduced defense investments by NATO members since the end of the Cold War and the lack of political will to use military capability when and where it is needed.

Since 2008, the 16 European members of NATO have reduced their military spending. Reductions in many NATO countries have exceeded 10 percent. In 2011, just three of the 28 NATO members—the United States, Britain, and Greece—spent the required 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. As expected, France fell below the 2 percent mark in 2011. Even Spain, with the world’s 12th largest economy, spent only 0.9 percent of GDP on defense in 2011.

To put this problem into perspective, New York City spends more on policing ($4.46 billion in fiscal year 2011) than 13 NATO members each spend on their defense.

However, on a positive note, Estonia claims it might reach the 2 percent requirement this year.

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At the summit, NATO is expected to unveil a number of “Smart Defense” initiatives to help solve this problem. Smart Defense aims to encourage allies to cooperate in developing, acquiring, and maintaining military capabilities in a more economically efficient manner in an age of defense cuts.

While the aims of Smart Defense are noble, there is a concern that the initiative is likely to amount to little beyond a list of aspirations if Europeans invest no new money in defense. The language describing Smart Defense may read well in a summit declaration, but until real money is invested and delivers real capabilities to the modern-day battlefield, it will be meaningless to the men and women on the front lines. To work, Smart Defense requires real military capability and real money. No clever nomenclature can evade this problem.

Many leaders in Europe say that the first duty of government is the defense of the realm, but few leaders actually implement this view in practice. Spending is about setting national priorities, and Europeans have become complacent about their own defense and overly dependent on the U.S. security umbrella. Sadly, with President Obama’s defense cuts, the U.S. is not leading by example.

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