In the category of baseless, manufactured hullabaloos, do we have a candidate in the form of NATO countries allegedly shirking their spending responsibilities on defence?
U.S. President Donald Trump, while switching positions regularly, has been scolding member countries for not reaching military spending levels of 2 per cent of GDP. He laments that the United States is left to carry the burden. He wants NATO members to jack up their expenditures to 4 per cent. The premise in this wrangle is that current levels of spending put NATO at a disadvantage in the face of threats, the major one being Russia.
That being the case, a germane question becomes how does NATO’s defence spending stack up compared to the Kremlin’s? The data, for some reason rarely cited, is revealing. It shows that NATO already spends more than 12 times as much as Russia on its militaries. You heard that correctly. A dozen times more.
What happens if the American input is taken away? In that scenario, the NATO member countries still almost quadruple the amount of Russian defence spending. And this is without member countries having reached their target of 2 per cent, which most are on track to do by the pledged date of 2024.
That NATO members, Canada included, are being slagged as freeloaders, as being delinquent on defence is curious, when, in fact, they maintain a commanding lead over their adversary.
The problem here is that by comparison to massive, sometimes prodigal U.S. military spending, budgets of allied countries pale by comparison. The assumption is always – despite NATO increases of US$33-billion last year – that the spending must go higher. Whether the boost is commensurate with a stronger threat is a question inadequately examined. If NATO members don’t cough up, they’re derided, as they once were by U.S. Air Force planner Robert Kaplan, as “Snow White and the 27 dwarfs.”
There were times during the Cold War when the arms race was actually a race, when the Soviet Union was on track with the Pentagon. The race ended as the Cold War ended. There has been no race since. Though the Russians have significantly ramped up military outlays in recent years, they are still lapped several times over by the Western alliance.
Allied power didn’t stop Vladimir Putin from annexing part of Ukraine. But that incursion wasn’t made possible by a lack of military resources on the part of NATO. It was enabled by a lack of political will. Endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left the West with little appetite for more.
No NATO country has been attacked by the Russians under Mr. Putin. Given the alliance’s military superiority and the commitment of members to defend one another, it would be senseless for him to do so. He’s a lot of things. He isn’t senseless.
The Russian threat has broadened, as witnessed by its alleged actions in the U.S. election and in the Brexit vote, to cyberwarfare – something that doesn’t require billions in military hardware. While Washington drained its treasury on traditional armaments, the Russians took laptops to the battlefield and struck. The Pentagon geniuses, with all their sophisticated intelligence gathering tools, didn’t see it coming.
Mr. Trump makes it sound like the U.S. contribution to NATO has been done out of the goodness of its heart. “We’re getting killed,” he says. More accurately, they’re doing it because it is in the American interest. Their European presence serves their geopolitical purposes in countering the Russians, in maintaining stability, in being the big guy on the block, in counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering capabilities, in trade and commerce.
Given NATO’s defence spending realities, it’s a wonder whether Mr. Trump was properly briefed. If he was, how could he have made his wild 4-per-cent demand?
Mr. Trump’s attitude – and that of his political base – is that when it comes to defence expenditures, enough is never enough. Though he has been adroit enough to call the Iraq invasion the disaster that it was, he is very much a captive of the defence lobby. His budget this year, despite a potential deficit crisis, saw major increases in military spending.
In Europe, defence spending is hardly one of the most imposing problems. Given the NATO advantages in terms of balance of power, the 27 dwarfs are not faring so badly. A better case can be made for Washington to claw back on military outlays than for Europe to endlessly ramp up.