Bratislava, Slovakia. 25 May. I have just arrived from Brussels at the superb GLOBSEC conference here in Bratislava. Back in Brussels President Trump is about to speak BS (burden-sharing) over dinner to other NATO leaders. He needs to. A slithering sound can be heard in Brussels these days. It is the sound of several NATO nations sliding out of the so-called Defence Investment Pledge or DIP. What would be an acceptable burden-sharing ratio for the Americans, and how much will the European Allies likely stump up?In an ‘ideal’ world the Americans would want their European Allies to field forces that could match at least 50% of US military capability. After all, NATO is part of both European and world security which is ‘guaranteed’ by the sole superpower – the US. It is a vital European interest to keep the US strong where it needs to be. And yet, whilst the Americans today provide 68.8% of all NATO-assigned forces, the US GDP represents only 48% of the NATO GDP total. Political realism suggests that it will be a push for Europeans to provide even 50% of the US forces that are committed solely to the Alliance.
NATO officials make much these days of the Defence Investment Pledge of at least 2% GDP to be spent on defence by 2024, of which 20% should be spent on the acquisition of new equipment. This benchmark is important for the Alliance. Indeed, if Europeans met the ‘DIP’ it would mean an extra $100bn each year for NATO. On Dutch TV this week, the Belgian Defence Minister said that under no circumstances could he envisage Belgium spending 2% GDP on defence. Which raises a further point; are any of the commitments made by NATO’s Allies worth the price of the pigment they are no doubt written on?‘The Meeting’, as today’s mini-summit is euphemistically called by senior NATO officials, follows hard on yesterday’s publication of the new US defence budget, which saw big hikes in some future critical areas, such as cyber. The US defence budget sends two messages to Europeans. First, the US will continue to fund the defence of Europe for the time-being at least. Second, the future US force envisaged could soon be too technologically-advanced for many European armed forces to work with, particularly at the high-end of the conflict spectrum. ‘The Meeting’ also follows hard on the Manchester atrocity, something British Prime Minister May will drive home, no doubt in tandem with President Trump (but only after giving Trump a firm wigging about Washington leaking British intelligence to the American press). Expect NATO to at least promise to expand its role in counter-terrorism, and become a formal member of the Global Coalition against ISIL.
President Trump will drive particularly hard on what I call NATO’s 3Cs – cash, capabilities, and contributions. And, no doubt, those many Europeans not spending enough on defence will seek to reassure him by suggesting the lack of cash does not imply a paucity of contribution. After all, the defence budgets of most European Allies have at least stopped falling, and some even show modest signs of modest increases. To use a technical term well known to Yorkshire diplomacy, this is bollocks!The spending devil will, as ever, be in the NATO detail. NATO is an institution that is ruled by consensus which means for political reasons no Ally can be seen to fail to meet its commitments. This supreme NATO political rule is reinforced by the nature of both the 3Cs and the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP). Improvements to the NDPP have indeed been made, and the system is far more rigorous that it once was when European defence spending commitments were in fact great works of European fiction. However, there are still times when a better acronym for the NDPP would be FUDGE.
Yes, the Allies will today agree to provide annual national reports to demonstrate their progress towards the 2%/20% targets. And yes, those that fail will receive damning reports on their performance, or rather lack of it, that it is hoped will shame them into action. However, in my experience European politicians can cope with an awful lot of shame within NATO, if they believe paying for social welfare instead of defence will get them re-elected at home.The European Allies should be under no illusion; business as free-riding usual is simply no longer possible for the Americans. Burden-sharing is not simply about cash, capabilities and commitments. It is also about sharing the benefits of Alliance. Last month I was in the White House where I spoke to a senior member of the Administration. During that trip I also spoke with senior Democrats. In other words, Europeans, no more benefits without more defence.
European leaders must not for a moment believe that if they can outlast President Trump Europe can somehow return to Sleepy Hollow and the Americans will continue to defend them. Times really are a-changing and an over-stretched US vitally needs strong Allies, and the Allies vitally need a strong US. Even the ‘2%’ target is something of an anomaly. By setting such an arbitrary target many Europeans have in effect stopped analysing the threats against which they must defend, setting the priorities they must keep, and making the hard choices strategic judgement demands of them.My fear is that Trump will not be the only one speaking BS in Brussels today! Tweet anyone?