Throughout NATO’s existence, U.S. leaders have complained about the tendency of the alliance’s European members to skimp on defense spending and take advantage of America’s security shield to free ride. The free-rider problem, bad even during the Cold War, became worse when that struggle ended.
In the past few years, especially since the onset of the global economic crisis, the problem has become much worse as European nations struggle to deal with increasingly burdensome social welfare states. Military spending in Europe has moved from the realm of inadequate to the realm of pathetic.
America’s already huge defense budget continues to grow. Counting the costs of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. spends nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. This year, defense spending will be roughly five percent of America’s almost $15 trillion GDP.
Contrast that with the efforts of the NATO allies. Even Britain and France, the two countries with the most serious defense budgets, provide little cause for satisfaction. The former is currently spending a mere 2.6 percent of GDP, and the latter an even smaller 2.1 percent. Even worse is the trend. Both figures represent significant declines from the 2009 budgets, and Paris and London contemplate still further cuts. Reliable media reports indicate that France plans another whopping 12.5 percent reduction, amounting to $5 billion. The new British government is conducting a comprehensive defense review that will likely slash at least another 10 percent from the already shrinking defense budget.
But Britain and France are militarized Spartas compared to NATO’s other European members. Germany, which made at least a credible effort during the Cold War, has allowed its military spending to dwindle to a mere 1.15 percent of GDP—with another major cut planned for the coming year. Italy is down to an anemic 0.91 percent, and Spain an even more paltry 0.69 percent. And as with the other NATO countries, more drastic cuts are in the works—in Italy’s case, an already announced 10 percent reduction.
Nor are matters significantly better with NATO’s newer, supposedly more enthusiastic, members. Poland, for example, devotes just 1.9 percent of GDP to defense, despite professed fears of Russian intentions. Moreover, Warsaw’s spending is trending down, not up. The new center-right government in the Czech Republic is likely to reduce military expenditures by approximately $4.6 billion on top of cuts made last year.
Money is flowing from defense programs to shore up beleaguered European welfare states. Jan Slota, the leader of Slovakia’s Nationalist Party, inadvertently provides the reason why that is happening. Slota, a xenophobic demagogue, tried to drum up support for his party prior to the last general election by warning against a (wholly imaginary) planned attack by Hungary, Slovakia’s southern neighbor. He also criticized the Slovak military for being “incapable” of defending the homeland.