Meeting in Brussels on Friday, European leaders addressed defence cooperation at an EU Summit for the first time since 2008. The timing of the discussion was propitious, coming at a time when European concerns about America’s commitment to transatlantic security and engagement had grown significantly as a result of Washington’s announced pivot to Asia and President Barack Obama’s hesitancy over Syria earlier this summer.
If ever there was a time when European leaders would need to demonstrate their willingness to do more on defence, this was it. And, indeed, the leaders rightly concluded that “defence matters.” They agreed to cooperate more closely on defence, including by increasing the effectiveness of their common security and defense policy, enhancing defense capabilities, and strengthening Europe’s defense industry.
These are important commitments. The EU is uniquely capable of bringing military, diplomatic, financial, trade, and other resources together in addressing security problems, and further developing ways to enhance comprehensive approach makes sense. So, too, does focusing development efforts on critical enabling capabilities, like medium- and high-altitude drones, air-to-air refueling, satellite communications, and cyber defence. As the operation in Libya demonstrated, Europe’s lack of these capabilities hampered independent military action. And strengthening defence industrial cooperation makes sense at a time when national industries cannot be sustained by a declining national demand for defense goods and services alone.
Yet, while all these are useful steps, they will affect Europe’s overall defence capabilities only at the margins. On the real issue – more spending – the silence of Europe’s leaders was deafening. While better cooperation – more pooling and sharing of capabilities, better industrial collaboration, improved planning of operations and missions – can help, the real problem facing European defence is the decline in spending, and nothing that happened in Brussels suggested a change in that dominant trend anytime soon.
It must be noted that the decline in defence spending has been going on for quite a while, now. At the beginning of this century, defence spending by non-US NATO countries still amounted to two per cent of these countries’ gross domestic product. By 2007 – a year before the financial crisis, mind you – that percentage had dropped a quarter, to 1.5 per cent of GDP. In 2012, non-US NATO spending on defence had declined to just 1.3 per cent in GDP.
Not only has the overall level of defence spending been cut by one-third over the past decade, but investments in future capabilities have suffered even more. Over the past decade, European countries have become increasingly involved in military operation – from Iraq to Afghanistan, from counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to stabilisation missions in western Africa and the bombing campaign over Libya. However, rather than raising defence spending to pay for this increased operational involvement (as the US did, dramatically), European countries decided to pay for these added costs with funds originally allocated to buying and investing in new equipment.
So future European defence capabilities suffered a double whammy this past decade: not only did overall spending decline sharply, but an increasing amount of what remained went to pay for current operations rather than to invest in future capabilities. Not surprisingly, the US spends three times as much as Europe on equipment, four times as much per soldier, and seven times as much on defence research and development. In other words, the gap between European and American capabilities is big, and getting bigger.
Thirty months ago, in his farewell speech in Brussels after serving six years as US secretary of defence, Robert Gates warned Europeans of the “blunt reality … that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources … to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” Nothing in the past two-and-a-half years would suggest that this blunt reality has changed. If anything, American appetite and patience has continued to decline.
That is why, it is so unfortunate, even if not exactly surprising, that European leaders meeting to discuss defence issues for the first time in more than five years failed to address the real issue of spending more on their own security and defence. In choosing to turn a deaf ear to the real issue of defence resources, European leaders seem once again to assume that their security can be bought on the cheap or paid for by someone else. That may well prove to be a costly – and dangerous – assumption.