Transatlantic Take

On NATO, the United States is Leading from the Front, Now Europe Must Step Up

June 29, 2015
Steven Keil
Derek Chollet
4 min read

WASHINGTON—Two years ago, worries mounted inside NATO about how much the Alliance would still matter after it wound down its mission in Afghanistan. In the months leading up to last year’s NATO summit in Wales, U.S. officials grappled with how to make the Alliance seem relevant. The twin crises to NATO’s east (Ukraine) and south (North African instability) put those existential concerns to rest, and today the discussion about NATO’s future has changed dramatically. Now everyone recognizes NATO’s indispensability, but worry whether it will be able to step up to today’s challenges.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spent last week in Europe on his first major trip to the continent — and it was one of the most consequential European visits by a Pentagon leader in several years. Carter’s trip illustrated the complex and paradoxical picture that is today’s transatlantic security landscape. The spectrum of threats facing the transatlantic alliance is the most perplexing since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, it has energized the relationship. For Washington policymakers, these challenges have underscored the need for strong security partners in Europe. For European leaders, they are a stark reminder of the importance of U.S. leadership.

Carter’s stops in Brussels, Berlin, and Tallinn reassured allies about the U.S. commitment to their security. He used his trip to introduce some of the most forward-leaning U.S. military measures to date to respond to the threat posed by Russia, such as the deployment of prepositioned equipment to help support training and exercises and reinforce military readiness. This equipment will help supply the U.S. forces that will continue to deploy on NATO’s eastern flank in the months to come.

The U.S. defense chief also promoted what he described as a new post-Cold war era “playbook.” He highlighted this at a meeting with the defense ministers from Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway in Münster, to visit NATO’s new Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), as well as his visit to Estonia, where he highlighted the need for greater cyberdefense. Carter concluded his trip last Friday by visiting the Grafenwöhr training facility in Germany — one of the most important U.S. military training sites during the Cold War — where he observed the Exercise Combined Resolve IV, a U.S. Army live-fire exercise involving nearly 5,000 troops from 14 nations aimed to enhance interoperability and multinational force cohesion.

While some will argue that more needs to be done, the prepositioning of equipment — which includes Abrams tanks and Bradley armored fighting vehicles — clearly demonstrates a new and more visible phase of U.S. leadership in bolstering NATO. Not long ago, some allies may have worried that such a step would be dangerously escalatory — and predictably, Russia publicly responded claiming that it was exactly that. But for today’s NATO, such a move is widely seen as necessary — and it is a welcome reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to Europe’s defense.

So the United States is stepping up, but will Europe? European defense spending continues to sink. While Poland will join four additional NATO nations in meeting the 2 percent target of defense spending across the 28 members, total alliance defense spending will decline by $50 billion from 2014 levels. Twenty-four of 28 NATO member countries continue to miss the defense spending target. And to make matters worse, one of the four is Greece, whose defense budget is inflated by personnel costs and should actually come down to help get its economic house in order.

Beyond defense spending, there are other troubling signs that Europe lacks will. A recent Pew Center Poll revealed that 70 percent of Poles see Russia as a major threat, while only 38 percent of Germans would agree. Also, in Germany a favorable view of NATO has declined by 18 percent since 2009. What is perhaps most striking is that only 38 percent of Germans responded that Germany should use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia.

So we are left with the enduring and clichéd truth: Europe must do more to address its own security needs. U.S. officials demanding increased European defense spending has become a tired routine, but so have the empty commitments from European capitals to follow through. Germany, France, the U.K., and Belgium all have experienced declining defense budgets over the past year (and to be fair, so has the United States). As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said during last week’s meeting of NATO defense ministers, “we cannot do more with less indefinitely.”

Taking place halfway between last year’s NATO Summit in Wales and next year’s summit in Warsaw, Carter’s trip to Europe carried an important message: the United States is doubling-down on its reassurance to NATO allies. And importantly, he delivered the substance to back it up. The Europeans now must follow. As Carter put it in a speech in Berlin, “Transatlantic security is, as ever, a two-sided affair.”

Derek Chollet is the counselor and senior advisor for security and defense policy and Steven Keil is a program officer in the Foreign and Security Policy Program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.