In Paris last month, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that France plans to spend $251 billion on its military. This amount was not just for 2014; it was for the next five years, meaning that Paris only plans to spend about $50 billion on its armed forces each year, or about 1.3 percent of GDP, down from 1.9 percent this year.
As part of the reductions, France is cutting 34,000 troops from its ranks. Germany has also cut $10.7 billion out of its 2014 military budget, and recently announced that it would reduce the size of its military from 250,000 to 165,000 and ended conscription, a practice that had been around since the end of World War II.
The cuts made by France and Germany, combined with similar cuts being made in the United Kingdom, show that defense spending is far from a priority in the European Union. But it also shows that the future of NATO, the alliance responsible for everything from intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s to the current war in Afghanistan, is in serious doubt.
Right now, the only NATO members that meet the requirement to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense are the United States, the United Kingdom and, ironically, Greece. NATO was an alliance formed to win a land war in Europe. Now that the possibilities of such a war rapidly recede, the Eurozone is struggling to justify the alliance's existence.
The latest to sound the alarm is Secretary-General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen, who warned last week that Europe was at risk of becoming irrelevant if it doesn't share the NATO burden with the United States. Right now, 70 percent of funding for the alliance comes from Washington.
"I do believe European nations can and should do more to match America's commitment. Because a strong NATO needs a strong Europe," Rasmussen said. "A strong Europe will require a strong political will."
A slow and steady drop
European defense spending has been trending downward for nearly a decade, according to a December 2012 report from the Center for Strategic and Advanced International Studies. "Total defense spending in Europe declined from 263.1 billion euros in 2001 to 220.0 billion euros in 2011 (a compounded annual growth rate … of -1.8 percent). This trend cuts across all defense spending categories," the think tank found.
It's not shocking Europe is spending less on defense. The euro crisis forced budget cuts across the board, defense included. But it also comes as Europeans increasingly believe that military threats no longer exist.
According to the 2013 Transatlantic Trends survey released by the German Marshall Fund last week, 56 percent of Europeans believe that NATO is necessary and only see it as alliance of "democratic countries that should act together." Support for using NATO in a military capacity was almost nonexistent in Europe. In fact, only 15 percent of all Europeans believed there was a military threat against their country. The lack of a perceived threat allows European governments to draw back on their NATO commitments without paying political consequences at home.
Our traditional allies are no longer 100 percent reliable. They do cooperate with U.S. surveillance efforts, but that happens outside of the NATO umbrella. This cooperation is also in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. But recent events show what the European defense pullback means in practical terms.
UK Prime Minister Cameron failed to deliver the votes necessary to authorize strikes on Syria, leaving the United States alone to garner international support. Germany refused to sign a declaration condemning Syria President Bashar al-Assad, siding with Russia and China (she later signed it under political pressure in Berlin).
The only NATO partner that has been a reliable ally is France. But French President Francois Hollande is paying a political price for this support at home.
It's not just Europe where willingness to spend is lacking. After a decade of reckless spending, the Pentagon is also tightening its belt. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has even warned that the U.S. commitment to the alliance might change in the coming years. When asked about sequestration and NATO in May, Hagel said, "I think that they are not unmindful and not unaware of this issue that we are currently engaged in. Our NATO allies have difficulties as well, with their economic issues."
The United States has also drastically reduced the number of troops it has stationed in Europe. At the height of the Cold War, some 200,000 American troops were stationed here. By 2014, only 30,000 are expected to remain.
"We are in the process of deactivating two long-storied brigades, and we are reducing our garrison footprint across Europe," Lieutenant General Donald M. Campbell announced earlier this year. This transition makes us leaner, better organized and more agile.
But economics aren't the only thing that is challenging the U.S. commitment to NATO. The White House has repeatedly been hesitant to use military force. It backed off striking Syria and played a small support role in NATO's 2011 Libya mission.
The good news from the GMF survey is that majorities of Americans and Europeans believe that NATO is necessary, even if they balk at support for its military missions. Joerg Wolf, editor of the Berlin-based open think tank atlantic-community.org, thinks limiting the scope of the missions NATO conducts while spending smartly on defense will keep the alliance relevant in the future.
"To achieve security despite austerity, we have to get our priorities straight: Let's avoid non-essential missions and focus on modernizing our militaries and improving interoperability for when NATO, as a defensive alliance, is needed again," he said. "Since our analysts will probably miss the next geopolitical earthquake — as they did 9/11 and the fall of the Soviet Union — we need to have a strong military with modern capabilities."
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