What NATO looks like in the age of European austerity
Amid budget cutbacks and a 'diminishing appetite' for war, Europe has turned increasingly to the 'soft power' assignments like training and institution-building.
When Portugal's Prime Minister José Sócrates welcomed President Obama on Nov. 19 to the NATO summit in Lisbon by announcing 150 additional Portuguese soldiers for Atlantic Alliance's deployment in Afghanistan, it was a surprise to the Portuguese people, who are coping with a growing economic crisis.Skip to next paragraph
Why It Matters
The United States now accounts for 75 percent of NATO members' defense spending, up from just under half a decade ago. Europe increasingly supports humanitarian and development aid instead. Some experts say the trend risks leaving Europe a 'paper tiger' and the US looking elsewhere for partners.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It was also a small exception to a larger trend across Europe of severe cutbacks, including military deployments and defense budgets, even as the European Union solidifies its place as one of the world's top providers of international humanitarian and development aid.
What that trend portends, say a growing number of experts on US-European relations, is a scenario under which the United States is more and more the provider of hard power – or military force – for the North Atlantic Alliance, while Europe turns increasingly to the soft power assignments like training and institution-building that it appears to prefer.
Some European military officials insist the trend is overplayed, adding that it will be Europe that will show the way to a more effective and efficient Atlantic military alliance by stepping up duplication-reducing cooperative ventures and hardware procurement.
But one statistic nevertheless stands out as a kind of caution light for NATO: Whereas a decade ago the US accounted for just under half of NATO members' defense spending, today the US share is closer to 75 percent – and growing.
Of NATO's European members, only France, Britain, and Greece reach the alliance's goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. And with Britain – along with France, one of Europe's last real military powers – set to reduce defense spending by 8 percent by 2015, the US-Europe divide is only expected to widen.
The trend risks leaving Europe a "paper tiger" that is not taken seriously on the world stage, NATO's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said during the Lisbon summit. Another danger, he warns, is that the US will turn away from Europe and look elsewhere for reliable defense partners.
"We cannot end up in a situation where Europe cannot pull its weight when it comes to security," Mr. Rasmussen said in October. "The United States would look elsewhere for its security partner."
For some US-Europe analysts, however, the day has already arrived.
"It's amazing to think that the argument used to be over when the EU would supplant NATO" as Europe's preeminent common security and defense institution, says John Hulsman, an international relations expert and consultant in Berlin. "Now the de facto division is one where the US is the military power and we look to Europe to help with the soft power, and there is no more argument about it."
Europeans 'tired' of war
A "diminishing appetite" in Europe for the kinds of jobs implicit in a mission like NATO's in Afghanistan is one explanation for the growing US-Europe "division of labor" in international interventions, says Charles Kupchan, a transatlantic expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. But another, he adds, is that Europe found itself at the end of the cold war with forces that were "primarily structured for a land conflict in Europe, with little capacity to project power beyond NATO's borders."