Editorial Board

France, U.S. Should Push Europe to Strengthen Military: View

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s embrace of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization might be the last best chance to reverse the decline in Europe’s defense capabilities.

In an Aug. 31 address to French ambassadors, Sarkozy said that in Libya, NATO “turned out to be a crucial tool in the service of our military operations.” This is a dramatic change from the traditional French ambivalence toward the alliance. But this new attitude doesn’t change the disproportionate share of the burden that the U.S., France and the U.K. bear for NATO’s operations. The good news is that by making NATO an important part of his national-security strategy, Sarkozy now has a powerful reason to push other Europeans to contribute their fair share.

Sarkozy understands the problem. In the speech, he forcefully decried Europe’s declining defense capacity and lack of political will. “Europeans,” he said, “must assume more of their responsibilities,” or “experience a rude awakening.” France and the U.K., he noted, account for half of combined defense spending by all members of the European Union.

This is unsustainable. France is struggling with budgetary problems, and the French people are unlikely to support robust military spending if other European nations receive a free pass.

Defense Spending

Sarkozy’s words are music to the ears of U.S. and NATO officials who have been making this point for years. In the early 1980s, European countries contributed about 33 percent of total NATO defense spending; this year, it’s about 20 percent. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the alliance’s secretary-general and a former prime minister of Denmark, has said Europe’s unwillingness to pay for defense means it will have less influence internationally and less capability to resolve cross-border disputes.

Although each of the NATO allies has agreed to lay out 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, the European allies spent an average of 1.7 percent of GDP in 2010 (compared with 5.4 percent for the U.S.). European expenditures are expected to decline further in the near future, and even the U.K. is planning cuts.

For the last 10 years, Europeans found it easy to dismiss what they viewed as U.S. heavy-handedness on security matters. But with Sarkozy now joining the call for change, it will be much harder to label this an American problem, reflecting U.S. attitudes.

Threat Perception

Most Europeans still don’t see a threat that justifies increased defense spending, nor are they yet comfortable with the idea that NATO should become an expeditionary force able and willing to send troops far from the alliance’s borders.

In addition, as most European countries focus on deficit reduction, getting them to spend more on defense probably isn’t a realistic goal.

Instead, Sarkozy should develop a strategy with President Barack Obama to change the way European alliance members spend their money, aimed at improving defense capabilities. The two leaders should try to persuade the Europeans to allocate their budgets more efficiently by pooling resources, sharing procurement, and having the smaller allies specialize in particular tasks.

For example, the Czechs have taken on the task of providing a defense against chemical, nuclear and biological weapons for all NATO forces; other allies don’t have to duplicate that capability. By having a group of countries buy the same equipment, the alliance can get lower prices from defense contractors.

Other cost-reducing initiatives are already in place. Some NATO members have cut the size of their armed forces, but made those that remained more effective. Twelve allies formed a consortium to buy three C-17 air transports that none of them could afford on their own. The Netherlands and Belgium share a naval headquarters.

Building on that foundation will require difficult political decisions. Rasmussen should devise a plan to boost capabilities while reducing costs and force NATO’s members to accept it or reject it as one package. If that doesn’t happen, the alliance’s members will continue to endlessly talk about the problem without solving it, as each country seeks to protect its parochial interests.

NATO has been unable to resolve this fundamental issue for many years. A joint French-American plan has a chance to break this deadlock. The irony is that Sarkozy will soon find out that it isn’t the U.S., but his fellow Europeans who are the biggest obstacle to his vision of France as a leader of NATO.