Put a European General in Charge of NATO
President Trump created a controversy during his recent trip to Europe when he bluntly told European NATO allies that it was time for them to meet their NATO pledge by bringing defense budget spending up to 2% of GDP. Currently, only 5 of 28 NATO allies meet that target. Since the demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s, NATO’s Western European allies have sharply reduced their conventional forces, happy to reallocate money previously spent on defense to social and economic programs. On average, European allies spend only 1.8% of their GDP on defense compared to 3.8% for the United States. Germany, the largest ally in Europe, spends only 1.2%. At the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany had 2,125 Leopard II tanks. Today it has 225, many of which are not even combat ready. During recent NATO exercises, German troops resorted to sharing tanks between regiments due to parts shortages.
President Trump has been criticized for his bluntness in confronting the problem, but it is hard to see what his more diplomatically worded alternatives were. For decades U.S. Presidents, diplomats, and military leaders have discretely complained to allies that Europe’s military spending commitment had to step up with no real results. President Obama also expressed his frustration with Europe’s “free riders.” The issue has festered for decades, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, America’s military challenges in other parts of the world have multiplied. Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, North Korea and China have consumed the U.S. military, even as it has continued to deploy 50,000 troops and advanced weapons to Europe. Earlier this year, the United States dispatched hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles for NATO exercises.
Were NATO’s founders to see the situation today they would be astonished. When NATO was created after World War II, Western Europe’s economy was in tatters. Most had virtually no military left at all, having suffered Nazi occupation. Great Britain was on the brink of bankruptcy with an exhausted military, and Germany was a decade away from rebuilding a military. Meanwhile, the security situation in 1949 was dire. Stalin’s armies had swallowed up Eastern Europe, and unless something was done quickly, the fear was that Western Europe would fall next. President Truman and George C. Marshall realized that the only answer was a sustained presence in Europe, numbering in hundreds of thousands of troops. By the 1980’s the commitment had grown to 350,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen stationed under the U.S. European Command. The world’s only superpower was the backbone of NATO’s defense.
Meanwhile, over the last 68 years, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and our European allies have grown into an economic superpower with an aggregate GDP and population that is comparable to, or even exceeds that of the United States. With these large resources and the continuing U.S. nuclear deterrent, it should be obvious that NATO Europe is now perfectly capable of defending itself from any conventional Russian threat, provided it shows the will.
The former Soviet Union, with a population exceeding 300 million and a military to match, no longer exists. Russia’s aggregate GDP is less than 1/10 the size of NATO allies’ today, with a population not even half as large. Even so, NATO remains structured as it was over sixty years ago. The United States leads the defense as it has since the end of WWII. The alliance’s sharing of defense burdens are frozen in time.
It is time for change. The balance of power around the world is shifting. While the United States is and will remain for some time the preeminent economic and military power, it will not be as dominant, reflecting growing prosperity in the rest of world, particularly Asia. As Graham Allison has recently observed, the United States must begin to craft a foreign policy that recognizes and accepts these fundamental realignments in power if it is to avoid “Thucydides Trap.” Powers are rising around the globe, and the United States must be prepared to deal evenly with these inevitable changes in the strategic order.
At the same time, as the world’s leading power, the United States will have to assure both diplomatically, and if necessary militarily, that global peace and fundamental core values of democratic human rights are not undermined in this realignment of the global power balance.
The United States will need powerful strategic partners to help achieve this. Our European allies will have to be involved, but soft power will not be enough. President Trump’s complaints, and those of his predecessors were more than fair. We must continue to try to persuade Europe to pick up their fair share of defense, particularly to play the lead role to counter any potential, conventional invasion threat from Russia. The United States will then have more flexibility to redeploy its resources to address challenges in other parts of the world. Ideally, over time, NATO Europe democracies can also become more of a global military force for peace and stability, but first, it should finally take the primary role in defending itself from any Russian attack. Sixty-eight years of predominant Americans conventional protection is enough.
Persuading all of our NATO allies to spend at least 2% of their GDP is, however, a very tall order. European domestic politics, pacifist traditions, social welfare values, will make achievement of that goal extremely difficult across 26 different countries. One more practical, and immediately important step symbolically, could be taken quickly. Since NATO’s founding in1949, an American General or Admiral has always served as supreme military commander. The time has come to pass that baton to a European ally. Along with NATO’s Secretary General, NATO’s next SACEUR should also be a European.
Some might express concern over such a move as a new manifestation of U.S. global retreat and isolationism. In fact, putting a European flag officer in charge of NATO would be a step in the opposite direction, recognizing that the post World War II order is over, and new power relationships exist. Such a move could be a step toward revitalizing and rebalancing the alliance for the modern era with continuing American NATO treaty support, both diplomatic and military. While the change would initially be symbolic, it could facilitate the stage for the emergence of a more militarily capable bloc of European democracies, allied with the United States under Article 5, to engage not only in Europe but beyond.
The United States will also have to master its own demons in promoting this inevitable process, resisting insecurity over the idea that Europe has finally become truly capable of handling its own defense after decades of American dependence. The United States should have nothing to fear from efforts among its European allies to provide better for their own defense through “Permanent Structured Cooperation” and other nascent efforts to build up their defense capabilities. In combination with a European serving as SACEUR, these collective efforts would allow our European allies finally to attain their own collective military potential for defense and projection. The result would be a robust transatlantic treaty alliance of democracies, not Finland.
To leave things as they are now is the real danger. Too many Americans have grown dangerously frustrated with NATO and our allies’ overreliance on U.S. military strength. If something is not done soon, the political clamor for a U.S. NATO withdrawal and more isolationist policies could accelerate in this country. Supporting the appointment of a European flag officer to be the next head of NATO in a few years could help quell such isolationist trends. With NATO Europe’s gigantic population, huge economic resources, and historic military traditions, such a leadership change is historically long overdue. Unlike reaching defense budget spending goals, this transition of leadership at the top can be achieved through a brief, change of command ceremony.
Ramon Marks is a retired New York international lawyer.