Europe is starting to get serious about defence

Under pressure from Donald Trump, the herbivores are thinking about eating meat

THE triceratops had a gentle existence that belied its fierce appearance, keeping to itself and maintaining a strict vegetarian diet. But in his neglected classic Tarzan the Terrible, Edgar Rice Burroughs conjured the Gryf, a horrifying dagger-toothed descendant of the three-horned dinosaur that roamed the African plains and snacked on the locals. Europe is contemplating a similar evolutionary path as it gets to grips with an American administration that has tired of playing T. Rex alone. Can the herbivorous power of the past, which has long delighted in the soft tools of diplomacy, trade and aid, really transform itself into a slavering, armed-to-the-teeth carnivore?

Donald Trump’s team has spent much of the last week in Europe cleaning up the boss’s mess. At the Munich Security Conference, James Mattis, the defence secretary, called NATO (which Mr Trump had written off as obsolete) “the best alliance in the world”. In Brussels, Mike Pence, the vice-president, assured his audience of America’s “strong commitment” to the European Union, a club the president has dismissed as a “vehicle for Germany”. Europeans remain baffled by the mixed messages emanating from Mr Trump’s administration. It is as if Henry Kissinger’s old (and apocryphal) question about whom to call when he wants to speak to Europe has been reversed, quips Hans Kundnani, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Washington.

But on one issue the president is in full agreement with his team. Like his predecessors, Mr Trump grouches that America’s NATO allies are not paying their bills. Only four other countries in the 28-member alliance meet its target of spending 2% of GDP on defence. Mr Trump’s threat to withdraw America’s security guarantee is probably a bluff. But he has other cards to play, including cuts to joint training programmes. Last week General Mattis warned his fellow NATO defence ministers that continued European miserliness might see America “moderate” its commitment to the alliance.

America is right to make these demands, say some ambassadors; in 2014 all 28 allies vowed to meet the 2% target within a decade. Indeed, Mr Trump is pushing at a partly open door. The long decline in European defence spending bottomed out in 2015. Russia and terrorism have restored history to Europe, and economies are growing again. Almost all NATO governments are raising defence spending in real terms, to the delight of Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general. But some, particularly in Europe’s south and west, still balk at shelling out for what feel like distant threats.

Their arguments are well trodden. The 2% target is mercilessly crude. Few would argue that Greece, which meets the goal partly because its economy has collapsed, has a more effective fighting force than Norway, which devotes a large share of its 1.5% to R&D and sends hundreds of troops to places like Afghanistan. The alliance has nine specific measures for ranking its members, but they remain classified and thus less politically potent than the 2% target. Europe’s problems lie in fragmentation as much as resources; NATO’s European members spend over four times as much on defence as Russia, but use 27 different types of howitzer and 20 fighter aircraft. The European Parliament reckons that joining up the EU’s defence market could save €26bn ($27bn) a year.

And so as the debate heats up, the herbivores are baring their wide, flat molars. Just before Mr Pence’s visit, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, irritated some in NATO by urging the Europeans not to bow to American pressure. A more expansive understanding of security was needed, he suggested; add development to the mix and the Europeans stack up rather better. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, delivered a similar message, in more diplomatic terms, in Munich.

If paying for boreholes in Namibia rather than reconnaissance drones in Lithuania sounds like special pleading to America, it serves a distinct purpose in Berlin. Mrs Merkel needs a story to persuade sceptical German voters of the wisdom of ramping up military spending from its current level of just 1.2% of GDP. Warm words about preserving security through non-military means offer one. (Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich conference, suggests a 3% target for military, development and humanitarian spending.) “Europeanising” defence is another. Germany is pursuing various security arrangements with other EU countries. Mr Juncker is backing an EU defence fund for common research and procurement, and for capital spending to be excluded from the commission’s rules on fiscal deficits. Whatever helps the medicine go down.
 
Beware the German Gryf

Mr Trump cannot be accused of expedience—he has attacked security freeloaders for decades. But he is hardly assured of success. Germans in particular will chafe at devoting more money to a cause they dislike to please a foreign president they detest. Slamming American-inspired militarism could prove a useful campaign tactic for Martin Schulz, a Social Democrat who wants to thwart Mrs Merkel’s bid for re-election in September (see article). And grand talk about joint European procurement and operations could easily be stymied by pressure from national defence champions interested only in securing the next juicy contract.
Indeed, Mr Trump’s warnings could even prove counter-productive. Other European countries might grow nervous at the emergence of Germany as a military superpower with serious expeditionary capabilities, should it choose to travel down that path. Furthermore, many countries will never reach the 2% target. But threats from the White House could force them to hedge against American withdrawal, notes François Heisbourg, a French security analyst. Make NATO conditional, and you force your partners into independence, and a foreign policy that may not suit American interests. Even the gentle triceratops sometimes used its horns to charge predators.
 
 
The Economist
 
 
08.03.2017
 
 

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