This week’s Munich Security Conference, taking place Feb. 17-19, potentially can mark the start of a process to meaningfully address the longstanding challenge of NATO burden sharing — not only through rhetoric and paper-spending pledges, but through concrete actions to enhance the alliance’s coalition war-fighting capabilities.
Since the U.S. presidential inauguration, the Trump administration has reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO; there is now solidarity on this core principle. While European leaders in attendance will be tempted to engage the newly minted Trump administration on any number of other contentious issues, it nevertheless is important that everyone keep their eye on the burden-sharing ball.
President Donald Trump’s focus on this issue is not new for American leaders — just more fervent. For a generation, European NATO countries have underspent on defense, not paying their fair share, and their capabilities have correspondingly atrophied — creating the impression in the American public that our European allies are largely free riders under the U.S. security umbrella.
This sustained decline reflects a long-term, secular trend toward debellicization — after centuries of warfare, Europe essentially has turned its swords into plowshares. For reasons of history and culture, most Europeans are more comfortable with the use of the nonmilitary tools of statecraft than with high-intensity military force (a position that effectively assumes the role of the United States as ultimate guarantor of the security of Europe).
In an effort to reverse this trend, NATO countries agreed at the 2014 Wales Summit to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense within a decade (which, while a step forward, is also a step back from the seldom-reached 3 percent commitment of the 1980s). The few nations already spending 2 percent or more of GDP agreed to maintain it while those spending less agreed to halt further declines.
While the Wales pledge has in practice largely stopped the backsliding, the problem is that the upside — the 2 percent GDP goal — need only be reached seven years hence, in 2024. There are no agreed-upon step increases in the interim nor other concrete steps to enhance capabilities. In effect, we must wait years to learn whether the allies will honor this commitment.
Sadly, if past is prologue, many European NATO members will defer or avoid this commitment. Witness the outcome of earlier, equally well-intended efforts to encourage NATO members to increase defense investment.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that any eventual European spending increases will address true needs. While some investment areas would be more beneficial to the common security than others, countries will only spend in ways they are comfortable with as a matter of national culture, geography and policy.
So, the leaders gathering in Munich should take steps together now to facilitate tangible coalition capability down payments on the Wales pledge.
There are strong reasons for European leaders to accelerate efforts. First, the security need is real, not theoretical — from the Russian challenge (soft and hard) to the terrorist threat to cybersecurity. Second, with the burden-sharing genie out of the political bottle, American pressure will only grow over time. The strong consensus for U.S. participation in NATO is likely to gradually unravel if Europe is not perceived as pulling its weight within the alliance.
The burden of allied capability development also should not fall exclusively on Europe. Historically, however, American leaders, from presidents on down, give speeches complaining about European spending but largely do nothing else in between summits to engage NATO counterparts on these matters.
While the United States has had a strong policy commitment to and engaged in major coalition operations, in reality we have done little to develop true coalition war-fighting capabilities or facilitate interoperability with allies possessing vastly different levels of capabilities.
Simply put, at the U.S. Defense Department, coalition warfare is not meaningfully built into our security strategy. There is little in the way of planning road maps or investment strategies.
The Trump administration thus has a golden opportunity to take the burden-sharing mantra further than past administrations — and with NATO at Munich to initiate a step-wise process that can potentially lead to tangible results — real deliverables — and to collective security by the NATO Summit this spring in Brussels.
First, Europe and the United States need to cooperatively identify gaps in our collective security where more capability would be most meaningful. Specifically, across a range of realistic contingencies (hard and soft), we need to evaluate shortfalls where modest investments by coalition partners can yield significant, near-term returns and potential force multipliers. These should be “new” investments, not paper commitments through NATO force planning or repackaging of ongoing investments.
The United States then should work with nations to define areas of specialization and responsibility that are consistent with their cultures, attitudes toward the use of force and resources. While some nations may focus on high-intensity capabilities, others may be more willing to develop low-intensity capabilities suitable for Petersberg tasks, counterterrorism or cyberwarfare.
Second, the United States should not just be a cheerleader. Rather, it needs to appoint a senior Defense Department official to take “ownership” of the allied capability development and interoperability agenda. In short, we need to better develop and nurture the coalitions we create on a sustained basis.
As part of the bargain, the United States can provide NATO forces with more access to U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, develop plug-and-play architectures with our allies, and work to enhance civil-military interoperability. We also should consider cooperative pooling of capabilities in discrete areas where it may be mutually beneficial and incentivize our NATO partners’ capability development.
In sum, let’s take Trump’s burden-sharing fervor out for a spin to drive the development, in real time, of enhanced NATO capabilities that will help to ensure this venerable institution’s ongoing relevance for the future.