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Europeans Finally Spend More on the Military—To Keep U.S. Entangled

The next administration must be firm about ending European cheap-riding in the face of the continent’s protests.


It isn’t easy being a European leader these days. The continent is technologically advanced, economically prosperous, and socially sophisticated. Its rich friend across “the Pond” continues to guarantee its defense, no matter how little it does for itself.

Threatening to ruin this pleasant life, however, is the specter of President Donald Trump. In February, London’s Sunday Times headlined one article: “Would Trump really leave Nato? Europe is trying not to panic.” The continent is clearly failing in its attempt.


What Trump would actually do is unclear. He criticized European free-riding long before being elected president the first time, and continued his hostile rhetorical fusillades while in office. Yet his administration increased funding and troop levels for the continent.

What now? The former National Security Adviser John Bolton predicts that, if elected, Trump will withdraw from NATO. Others disagree. Indeed, a couple months ago, the former president said that he “100 percent” would stay in the transatlantic alliance as long as NATO treats “the U.S. fairly.” Trump apparently plans to call on alliance members to increase military spending as a share of GDP from two to three percent, reinforcing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s insistence that they “must go further” than two percent. Of course, Trump might again change his mind if elected.

European governments are spending more on the military. Stoltenberg cited “real progress”: “In 2024, NATO Allies in Europe will invest a combined total of 380 billion U.S. dollars in defense. For the first time, this amounts to two percent of their combined GDP.” 

There is still much more to do. Several small nations are putting in greater effort, but that inevitably yields little practical strength. Some of the bigger spenders, such as Germany, also have produced minimal combat force for their money. Today, the United Kingdom is shrinking its army even as it increases its outlays. Moreover, charges British historian and journalist Max Hastings: “Though successive British prime ministers have professed to embrace Ukraine, which is essentially our proxy in facing down Russian aggression, they have done almost nothing to sustain the supply of munitions, once the army’s cupboard was emptied.” And some states capable of contributing much more, such as Italy and Spain, continue to lag. Nevertheless, more Europeans appear to be more serious about their militaries. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped concentrate minds across the continent.

But NATO’s European members are not spending more to prepare to take over responsibility for their own defense. Rather, they are spending more to keep the U.S. involved


“A strong NATO is good for Europe, but a strong NATO is also good for the United States,” claimed Stoltenberg. “It is in the interest of the United States to keep NATO, and therefore I believe they will remain a staunch and loyal ally.” Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak argued, “America should be assured that more European countries are stepping up. Our friends and neighbors are listening to our argument that we can’t expect America to pay any price and bear any burden if we on this side of the Atlantic aren’t prepared to invest in our own security.” 

POLITICO Europe reported that Sunak’s fellow ministers “hope the U.K. can lead a coalition of Germany, France and Poland to show the U.S. that Europe can and will pull its weight.”

Similarly, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda observed, “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine clearly demonstrated that the United States is and should remain the security leader. But other allies must take more responsibility for the security of the alliance as a whole.” 

Speaking of Poland’s upcoming stint as president of the European Union, Duda announced that “our overarching priority will be: more of the United States in Europe. That means a more active U.S. presence across the military, economic and political domains. Just as there is no strong NATO without Europe, there is no strong Europe without the United States and NATO.”

Many European leaders understand that Americans have tired of being taken for granted as the continent’s sugar daddy. By making more of an effort, Washington’s nervous friends are trying to defuse popular sentiments well-represented by Trump. The Europeans hope their American critics will become happy guardians. Moreover, the allies will be better prepared for a difficult future if their efforts fail and Trump or another American president decides to withdraw from the transatlantic alliance.

Nevertheless, NATO advocates also are fighting back by insisting that the European members remain incapable of defending themselves. Ongoing efforts are insufficient, argued Hastings: “Europe requires a decade of enhanced spending to make itself remotely capable of self-defense, in the absence of the US.” The Economist, a reliable advocate of preserving Washington’s job as continental defender, devoted an entire section to answer the question, “Can Europe defend itself without America?” Unsurprisingly, its answer was no

Anyway, more money is not enough. Almost all European armies are struggling to meet their recruitment targets, as is America’s. Moreover the rise in spending after 2014 delivered alarmingly little growth in combat capability. A recent paper by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), a think-tank in London, found that the number of combat battalions had barely increased since 2015 (France and Germany each added just one) or had even fallen, in Britain by five battalions. At a conference last year, an American general lamented that most European countries could field just one full-strength brigade (a formation of a few thousand troops), if that. Germany’s bold decision to deploy a full brigade to Lithuania, for instance, is likely to stretch its army severely.

Even advocates of a more independent Europe warn of the continent’s extraordinary military weakness. For instance, Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote that “a stronger, less dependent Europe would meet the United States as a genuine partner, giving Washington new reason to commit to the relationship. NATO, after all, will be more valuable as an alliance between two military powers than it is as a team led by just one.” He warned that 

many American and European leaders have mistakenly concluded that all it will take to replace the United States’ contribution is to spend a lot more on security. In fact, even if all European NATO members were to meet the alliance’s goal of contributing two percent of GDP toward defense, their efforts would not significantly reduce Europe’s military dependence on Washington.

Thus, it is essential that critics of a NATO forever dominated by America expand their focus. Ultimately, Europe is capable of taking over its own defense. With continental outlays rising, the next step is to begin decreasing the U.S. commitment of both money and troops. Although France’s President Emmanuel Macron appears to be dedicated to creating a separate European defense force, most of the continent’s leaders prefer to continue receiving American security subsidies. Only necessity, caused by withdrawal of the U.S. military and the end of America’s Article 5 guarantee, is likely to better motivate European governments. 

There is no need for Washington to indulge in histrionics and insults. Although Trump’s rhetorical flourishes made the issue good theater, they hindered the creation of a positive working relationship necessary to transform the transatlantic alliance effectively. Rather, Trump articulated the basic point: “We have an ocean in between,” and the alliance “is more important” to the Europeans. Given their wealth and population, they should take over their defense, instead of expecting Americans to forever pick up the bill. 

Along the way Washington should do everything possible to smooth the move to a true multilateral alliance in place of unipolar hegemony. A drawdown should be steady and certain, not rapid and chaotic. The U.S. should help allies increase their capabilities along with their outlays. 

American administrations also should help reduce threats against Europe. It obviously will be easier for the Europeans to defend themselves if they face fewer and less serious dangers. Although fears of Russia following up victory over Ukraine with a march across Europe to the Atlantic reflect neither threats nor actions of the Putin government, nothing is certain. Allied policy should focus on ending the Russo–Ukrainian war with a negotiated settlement that enhances continental as well as bilateral security. Addressing Russian concerns is necessary to avoid any repetition of the “special military operation.” Reaching a satisfactory modus vivendi, though undoubtedly difficult, would benefit both sides economically as well.

Finally, America and Europe should cooperate on other issues. They share many interests and values, as well as a long, complicated history. Areas where they should work together include trade, terrorism, international governance, democracy promotion, and climate change. They also could better cooperate regarding Africa, China, and the Middle East.  

Europe’s increased military spending is a major step forward. Although the continent’s willingness to cheap-ride on the U.S. is irritating, the Europeans are responding to Washington officials’ attempts to preserve their dominance. European governments took advantage of Americans just as Washington intended, only at too low a price in the latter’s official eyes. 

This status quo is no longer acceptable. Americans are burdened both financially at home and militarily abroad. Today, Washington needs to shift, not share, the burden of Europe’s defense. That should be a major objective for the next administration, whoever is elected in November.