Finance ministers should make a point of attending next NATO summit
© Getty Images

President Trump will travel to Brussels this month for the first NATO summit of his young administration. The stakes will be quite high.

Today, the alliance’s resolve is being tested more than at any time in the last 25 years. Some are even questioning the political cohesion of the transatlantic institution.

ADVERTISEMENT
Its military strength, too, is increasingly in doubt. The alliance has had a hard time adjusting to the new threats and challenges that have emerged since the fall of communism.

 

But perhaps the most pressing challenge facing summiteers is to somehow recapture the alliance’s waning political resolve. For it is lack of political resolve that has starved the alliance of the investment necessary to maintain a formidable mutual defense. 

European members have long been loathe to dedicate toward defense funding equal to 2 percent of GDP—the amount required by the treaty’s provisions. And the U.S. has long sought to get their allies to live up to this commitment.

Twenty years ago, as Hungary prepared to join NATO, it was borne in to the Hungarian negotiators that, as a member, one is expected to bear a fair share of the costs for maintaining the alliance. “The United States does not want free riders” was the message, loud and clear.

This was not seen as an oppressive demand. Supporters of membership argued that NATO membership would have enormous benefits for Hungary, and that those benefits would far outweigh the costs.

Even at that time, though, other voices were urging Hungary not to take the financial obligations too seriously.  Some old members of the alliance eagerly shared their expertise on how to cook the books to make it appear as though obligations were being fulfilled. Neither U.S. demands for burden-sharing nor European resistance to those demands were anything new, they suggested.

At the time, the old hands’ blandishments found little favor in Budapest. Lajos Bokros, Hungary’s center-left finance minister at the time of accession and the architect of the country’s harshest austerity policy to date boldly proclaimed: "For NATO and for defense, there will always have to be money".

But across NATO, living up to defense spending commitments has become sort of a game of hide and seek: U.S. presidents call for a proper burden-sharing, while Europeans create inventive arguments against meeting the 2 percent military spending threshold.

Meeting that commitment has become a mantra of President Trump, but, we repeat, this is hardly new and should come as no surprise to the European allies. It is a recurring message, delivered consistently by U.S. presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Since the end of the Cold War, Europeans have been cashing in the "peace dividend." In the process, they have let down their guard. Today, some aren't even capable of fielding proper hardware at joint military exercises.  At a time when emerging threats demand newer, continuous and faster adaptation of military capabilities, NATO strength is actually eroding.

That’s why the summit is so important, and why the European members must take it seriously. For starters, they must understand that Trump's demand for 2 percent spending is not just the folly of a "strange man." It is Washington’s longstanding position. The difference perhaps is that, this time, America means it. 

Nor is Trump the only one insisting that U.S. allies live up to their obligations. It is also a message of the American electorate, left or right: America cannot and will not continue to share disproportionately the cost to defending our allies.

One thing is for certain: the West will face multiple challenges and crises in the future. This will require a higher and better military spending across the board. Members, big or small, will have to reach deeper into their pockets to build new capabilities, which will send a clear message to our enemies.

Spending 2 percent of GDP on defense is perhaps no popular decision in Europe. But it is necessary, and European politicians must summon the political courage to explain to their people why this is so important.

To get started, it would be a very good thing if the European allies sent their finance ministers to the Brussels summit.  It would send a strong message of resolve.

Sitting next to their country’s leaders, in the company of the foreign and defense ministers, the finance ministers’ very presence would signal an full understanding of the importance of defense. Far from being “a waste,” defense spending is an essential element underpinning our free and democratic societies, upon which economic prosperity depends.

This could then be the first step toward creating another pillar of our close cooperation, the NATO Finance Ministers’ Council. There is no reason why it should rest solely upon the foreign and defense ministers to explain to the public why spending on defense is key to maintaining our way of life. Finance ministers have every reason to part of the educational mix as well.

Europeans need to understand why meeting the 2 percent defense spending target is important: it’s not about making President Trump happy; it’s about fulfilling a long-term commitment to the transatlantic relationship which is the foundation of Europe’s collective security, defense and prosperity.

Mutual defense is, by its very nature, a two-way street. The more the European allies spend on our collective defense and that of their own, the more the United States will be willing to stay committed to Europe.

James Jay Carafano, a Heritage Foundation vice president, directs the think tank’s research on national security and foreign relations. A Hungarian diplomat, András Simonyi is the managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.