The Politics of 2 Percent: NATO and the Security Vacuum in Europe

Troops participating in NATO's Noble Jump Exercise, June 18, 2015In 1990, the then 14 European members of NATO spent around $314 billion on defense collectively. In 2015, the alliance’s now 26 European members are expected to spend around $227 billion on defense. So while European membership in NATO has nearly doubled since 1990, defense spending by Europeans has gone down by 28 percent since then. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Germany’s defense spending has fallen by 4.3 percent since 2008 alone. In the same period, the United Kingdom has reduced its defense spending by 9.1 percent and Italy by 21 percent. This has led to a sharp drop in military capabilities in bigger and more exposed NATO member states, and it has made the already-uneven burden sharing in the alliance even more lopsided….

A good number of European NATO members have shown a willingness to spend more in 2015, but the relevant military powers are not among them. And even those willing to spend more are not, for the most part, spending in a way that brings them significantly closer to the decisive 2 percent threshold. While these numbers can be interpreted positively, they don’t give too much hope that significantly more military capabilities will be in NATO’s arsenal any time soon. The debate over the 2 percent pledge and its strategic rationale is bound to increase in intensity in the coming years….

The 2 percent issue receives its relevance from a wider strategic question that has been building up in Europe since the early 1990s and that has yet to be resolved. It is the question of who is responsible for keeping Europe safe and free, Europeans or Americans—or both.

Since 1949, the United States has been the guarantee power of (Western) Europe. By means of its nuclear weapons arsenal and a massive troop presence across Europe, U.S. extended deterrence was designed to keep its European allies safe from territorial invasion and political blackmail. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. security guarantee stayed in place and was even extended to parts of Europe that had hitherto been excluded from it. NATO, as a political organization, was conceived to administer this security guarantee and make the Europeans themselves stakeholders in it. This fundamental principle of the political order of Europe has never been abandoned and remains in place today.

However, the military-political bargain that underlies this arrangement has been questioned over the last decade. The permanent U.S. troop presence in Europe has been very substantially reduced since the 1990s, and continues to shrink. At the same time, Europeans have not increased their military capabilities to make up for the reduced American footprint on their continent. The American security guarantee still exists, and few think that the United States would not heed its commitments should an attack on European allies occur. And yet doubts have emerged about whether the stripped-down force posture in Europe would allow the United States to defend Europe even if it wanted to. Meanwhile, Europeans continue, overall, to reduce their military capabilities.

The net result is an emerging security vacuum: both the United States and Europe are less capable militarily in Europe, and they leave an emptied strategic space that could potentially be filled, or at least exploited, by outside powers. Even before the Ukraine crisis and the reemergence of a fear of Russia in Europe, this macro-development in European security was a strategic problem. Europe’s neighborhood has traditionally been unstable and the source of conflict and war for several decades—from the frozen conflict in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria to the Western Balkans to the Syrian crisis and the rise of the jihadist self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Middle East to tumult in Libya and massive migration flows across North Africa. Add to this the emerging instability in Eastern Europe and the potential conflicts in Europe’s wider neighborhood (the Arctic, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Gulf, and sub-Saharan Africa), and a picture emerges of a continent exposed to considerable security risks….

Between the U.S. necessity to reduce its presence in Europe and the European inability and unwillingness to step in, a power and security vacuum emerges….

The discussion about how to fill the void has been going on for almost two decades, but the Ukraine crisis has made Europe’s strategic dilemma visible like no other crisis before. Who takes care of European security when America is less likely to carry the overwhelming part of the burden?…

Among these symptoms, the 2 percent issue might be the least publicly visible, but as it illustrates NATO member states’ willingness to allocate funds, it is arguably the most valuable indicator of how seriously the underlying strategic issues are being taken. It is not without a degree of tragedy that an issue as comprehensive and overwhelmingly relevant as this one is perhaps most heatedly discussed as a budgetary concern and not, as it would warrant, as one that is tied to geostrategic influence in Europe, the value of U.S. security guarantees, and, ultimately, the future of the liberal world order….

[T]he 2 percent metric is politically valuable. It boils down a complex issue into a simple numeric narrative. It can be grasped swiftly, and failure or success in meeting the target can easily be measured. This eminent usefulness in the political debate is the main reason why the 2 percent metric has caught on as a mainstay in efforts to sort out the future of NATO….

Far beyond what 2 percent is actually measuring, the ability or inability of European allies to meet 2 percent is now seen as a key indicator of the quality of the transatlantic partnership. From Washington’s perspective, the quantitative 2 percent metric handily divides America’s allies into the two qualitative categories of partners and free riders. It is no surprise that U.S. administrations—and, specifically, those Americans who feel strongly about European security—have again and again reminded European NATO members to move toward 2 percent. Those Americans need as high a number of European “two-percenters” as possible to make the case back home in Congress and vis-à-vis the public that Europe is still on board, is willing to reciprocate America’s engagement, and is thus politically and morally worthy of a continued U.S. security investment.

And indeed, even many European observers and NATO officials will admit that, despite its conceptual shortcomings, the 2 percent metric works as a political tool. It is now widely (and correctly) perceived not as a very meaningful driver toward more military capability but as an indicator of political will. Those who make an effort to get to 2 percent, or near it, are seen as investors in transatlantic security, regardless of what that money actually buys them. The rest are seen as reluctant or disengaged, no matter how active and involved they might otherwise be….

The main reason, however, why defense analysts remain skeptical about 2 percent is not about economics. They mention two other issues: First is that the really decisive factor that drives defense spending is neither a multilateral pledge at the NATO level nor economic well-being, but threat perceptions. And Europeans, despite the Ukraine crisis and an increase in international terrorist activities at home and in their neighborhood, do not feel threatened enough to really be concerned about their low levels of military capability. Second is that Europeans continue to rely on the United States to pick up the costs for keeping Europe safe, and that no warnings or pleas from Washington can convince them that Americans won’t continue to do so….

In the absence of any political will from the Europeans to significantly beef up their defense, this impasse can basically only be broken in one of two ways: Either the United States is completely honest about its role in Europe and says it will continue to subsidize the continent’s security. This will probably mean an expensive, permanent recommitment to Europe over the next decade or so. Or the United States reduces its commitment, thereby risking a security crisis in Europe and the erosion of the cornerstones of its global posture.

Neither of these two radical solutions will be embraced, of course. Instead, a third option will likely continue for some time: balancing the two and hoping that a blend of demonstrated American solidarity, lecturing, and threats of leaving will move the Europeans in the desired direction.

This will be a shaky compromise. It can only last as long as NATO and the territory protected by Article 5 of the NATO treaty are not really threatened by anyone, and as long as the political consensus in Washington survives that says Europe, America’s geostrategic countercoast, must be always defended by the United States. Should the strategic situation in Europe change dramatically, or should America’s support for Europe erode, as some say it inevitably will, the status quo will become unsustainable. No one knows how long it will take to reach that point….

Is the 2 percent metric a useful tool in the debate over NATO’s future?If the purpose of the target is to create and keep alive a political debate on burden sharing and capabilities, the answer would have to be a clear yes. If used well, the 2 percent debate can illustrate the changed strategic landscape in Europe and what’s at stake given the increasingly risky neighborhood Europe finds outside its borders. If employed with subtlety and determination, the 2 percent metric might be capable of creating space for at least some sort of public debate on European security. It might serve as the proverbial foot in the door that opens up spaces that are usually inaccessible.

This is why the 2 percent metric, despite its conceptual flaws, is a good thing in itself. Its ultimate political success will, however, depend on how it is used by those who are trying to make the wider strategic point about security in Europe that the 2 percent metric alone is unable to address….

The 2 percent metric clearly illustrates the divisions among NATO’s allies. In Europe, it is underestimated and widely misunderstood to what extent those American policymakers who believe in transatlantic relations eagerly need Europeans to make some demonstrated improvements on defense spending so they can continue to make the case for Europe in Washington. In Washington, meanwhile, the enormous emphasis on 2 percent as the silver bullet in the transatlantic security debate is perhaps stressed too much. It irritates Europeans and makes the United States appear primarily interested in leaving Europe instead of staying.

And the metric is a reminder of the costs of preserving freedom and peace in Europe. These costs are relatively modest, considering the alternative, even though they might appear painfully high in a European political environment that in mid-2015 is almost exclusively concerned with its economic survival. But with a wider strategic neighborhood as conflict-ridden as Europe’s, focusing on the economy alone might ultimately be a rather costly attitude.

Finally, 2 percent is also a reminder that pledges and pleas and commitments will in the end not sway elites and voters to spend more on defense. What will sway them are threats they can see and feel. This is as disheartening as it is normal. It will take much more effort from European governments to make the case for better military capabilities if they want to avoid a situation in which real and urgent contingencies—some of which might be about physical survival—force them to do under pressure what they were unable to do when there was still enough time.

Jan Techau is the director of Carnegie Europe.

Image: Troops participating in NATO's Noble Jump Exercise, June 18, 2015 (photo: SHAPE)