This blog post is part of a Carnegie Europe project that takes a critical look at the implications of meeting NATO’s 2 percent defense investment pledge.


Carnegie Europe’s Jan Techau provides an essential assessment of the realities affecting the NATO members since they agreed at their 2014 summit in Wales that, within a decade, defense spending as a share of GDP would reach 2 percent per ally. In his new paper, “The Politics of 2 Percent: NATO and the Security Vacuum in Europe,” Techau points to political and economic conditions in Europe that make meeting the goal unrealistic.

Concurrently, the European allies risk underestimating how important progress on this goal is to America’s view of the transatlantic relationship. Techau shows that the 2 percent figure indicates little about capabilities and outputs, offers little regarding research and development, and has no clear correlation with threat assessments and requisite capabilities. Nonetheless, he correctly sees the 2 percent goal as a political basis for keeping the burden sharing debate in NATO moving forward. That debate, however, will need to produce bolder moves if NATO is to remain durable.

There is no historical basis to conclude that NATO declarations on burden sharing have much value other than to expose divisions among allies. During the Cold War, repeated efforts failed to build up European defense capacities—from the proposed European Defense Community in the 1950s to resolutions in the U.S. Senate from former senator Mike Mansfield in the 1960s and an alliance proposal for force modernization in the late 1970s.

In the post–Cold War period, NATO and allied officials have made repeated calls for increases in capabilities investment—while also making expansive commitments to new members and out-of-area operations. If the European allies could not break their incentives to free ride on the United States while confronting Cold War and post–Cold War dangers, on what basis would any decisionmaker think that the allies would change course now?

Meanwhile, the United States wants the allies to do more but has refused to cede primacy in Europe, drawing redlines of opposition to increased European capacity outside NATO during the 1990s. Why U.S. officials would believe that different results would emerge now, after decades of failed approaches to demanding greater burden sharing, is unclear.

Techau stresses that missing from the 2 percent goal is a common threat assessment amid shifting transatlantic priorities. The primary threats to stability in Europe today remain the eurozone crisis and ongoing austerity. Consequently, there is little to no additional money or political will for defense spending. Why, for example, should Germany be expected to almost double its defense budget while subsidizing massive economic bailouts for other eurozone members? At the same time, why should the United States continue to fill capabilities gaps if its allies will not?

Meanwhile, most challenges to stability in and around Europe—the eurozone, refugee pressures, energy security, and terrorism—have little to do with conventional military spending. In fact, defense spending diverts resources necessary to meet these challenges.

Collectively, the European allies do not need to spend more on defense. A continent of friendly nations that has roughly 2 million people in uniform, some of the leading defense industrial bases in the world, and two nuclear powers is entirely capable. The problem is not how much Europe spends, but rather how it spends what it has. The European allies need to focus primarily on pooling capabilities, backstopped by the United States—as Techau notes is likely. Even that, however, is problematic, given that force projection tools such as airlift and intelligence are filled by the United States, which deters allies from filling those gaps.

It is up to Washington, then, to provide a clear vision of what a durable transatlantic burden sharing architecture will look like. This could be done by achieving agreement on an alliance-wide goal that within a period of three to five years, the European NATO members will build a pooled capacity to conduct a military operation like that in Libya in 2011 and a peace support operation akin to those in the Western Balkans after the Yugoslav Wars, without the United States. America’s primary role in NATO would be the collective defense mission that, in the current environment, mainly requires small and symbolic rotational units exercising through the Baltic countries and Poland.

To date, the challenges confronting Europe—the eurozone crisis, the standoff with Russia, refugee flows—have not met with a security vacuum. There is no evidence of defense nationalization in Europe to date. Even Russia, whose behavior in Ukraine has discredited Moscow as a responsible international power, has limited sustainable military projection capacity.

In fact, each crisis has increased trends toward integrative problem solving. There is a growing divide in Europe between Southern states, which face immediate stability challenges stemming from North Africa and the broader Middle East, and Northeastern European allies, which remain focused on Russia. Thus, Europe is likely to experience considerable political strains moving forward.

This is all the more reason for the United States to continue to incentivize integrative trends among its European allies. Crucially, if the United States cannot hand over lead military responsibility to capable European allies, then its ability to confront major challenges elsewhere, especially in Asia, are at risk. A security vacuum would emerge if the United States had to devote attention and resources to a major crisis in Asia and Europe were unprepared to act to address immediate regional concerns. Better to identify a plan now that advances integrative trends via pooling capabilities than to bank on a 2 percent goal that is dubious at best.

The most perilous days for the NATO alliance were immediately after its formation in 1949. There was a real security vacuum in Europe with massive Soviet divisions to the East and the Marshall Plan having yet to make its full impact. At that time, NATO had no integrated military command, no headquarters, and not even a secretary general. What made the alliance powerful then was the political commitment to common defense.

However, NATO was never intended to perpetuate European security dependence on the United States as emerged during and after the Cold War. Rebalancing the transatlantic relationship based on European allies in the lead and pooling their resources, with the United States serving as an insurance policy for Europe, is an immediate challenge for the alliance.

NATO cannot wait for the politics of the 2 percent approach to be sorted out over a decade. Techau provides an essential foundation for advancing this debate—but the case for bolder action is urgent.


Sean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government and director of the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is also an associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University.