“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” That’s Secretary of Defense Bob Gates on his way out of office, back in 2011. Secretary of State John Kerry, too, has called on America’s NATO allies to increase their defense spending to the agreed 2 percent of GDP. Here’s the grim picture: apart from the United States, at 4.4 percent, only Britain (2.4 percent), Greece (2.3 percent), and faithful Estonia (2 percent) meet this target. Needless to say, the European NATO members also remain far from “serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
That, Hans-Peter Friedrich tells me, needs to change. “Putin is teaching us the meaning of power politics,” the deputy leader of the German Parliament’s Christian Democrats, who oversees European issues, recently told me. “Agreements [such as national borders] only mean something if they can be backed up by action. Europe must be capable of defending itself.” Friedrich, a veteran parliamentarian and former cabinet minister with a Ph.D. in law, is daring to articulate an uncomfortable reality: though collective defense is the pillar of NATO collaboration, the American public’s “dwindling appetite” for involvement means the European allies will have to step up. “I wish that we’d establish a European pillar of NATO,” he told me.
It’s not that it hasn’t been tried. (Back in 1999, NATO formally endorsed the EU’s European Security and Defense Identity, noting that the United States may not be able to get involved in every European security contingency. ESDI, where art thou?) This spring, Friedrich and fellow center-right parliamentarians in other European countries will informally talk about the matter. But such conversations are leaving the Baltic states alarmed. “Baltic leaders are keeping a bilateral connection with Washington as a backup,” one general in the region told me. One can sympathize with them. Recently, Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis told me that, thanks to NATO’s 150 soldiers on Latvian soil, he’s not afraid of Russian aggression. “Who wants to start a war against the US?” he asked. “That’s what Russia would do if it attacked Latvia. Putin is not that stupid.” But without US soldiers part of that contingent, what would happen?