Authored by Nicholas Guy, originally posted in Human Events
In March, news that Germany refused to meet the financial obligations that come with membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was met with some ire by the general public. This shocked few national defense pundits, however.
For President Trump, who ran on a platform of holding our NATO allies accountable, the issue of membership dues is tantamount. In 2014, NATO members agreed to increase their contributions to the alliance to the amount of 2% of their respective GDPs; less than a quarter kept their promise. Since taking office, President Trump has pressured our allies to meet the standards they set themselves.
But the United States shouldn’t hold its breath. Germany—who had agreed, months back, to meet the 2% benchmark—announced in March that they will not do so. In an attempt to soften the blow, Germany suggested that it and the United States should only provide 16% of NATO’s operating budget—a reduction from the 22% that the United States had been burdened with. But this operating budget is distinct from the 2% of GDP that member states are obligated to contribute, per their own rules, and most members will continue to free-ride.
If European heads of state can laugh at and gossip about President Trump at a conference about the threats the Western world faces, America needs to be prepared to go it alone.
THE ONCE-BOLD AMBITIONS OF THE POST-WAR COALITION
Seventy years after its formation, NATO is a shadow of its former self, a husk of the once-formidable alliance of anti-Soviet allies.
The Soviet menace was at the gate in the twilight of the 1940s. A world exhausted after years of total war was once again facing an existential threat. Communism was spreading like an untreated infection, and Western ideals were besieged. Since its inception, former Bloc states and weaker European nations have joined NATO to protect their autonomy. In theory, this should be a strong alliance, one well-funded and well-managed with immense institutional knowledge.
In practice, it’s a farce.
In the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, member states have failed to pay their fair share of their obligations and forced the United States to shoulder the burden. Only a few members even bother to host military exercises for the alliance. Even when countries host their fellow members, the United States finds itself footing the bill for the massive costs associated with moving, coordinating, and executing the missions of other armies.
NATO’s member nations have done little to expand or modernize their military forces in recent years. Since 2001, Western militaries have focused their efforts at combating asymmetric threats, from terrorism, insurgencies, and non-state actors. The focus on unconventional warfare and counter-insurgency operations led Congress to steer defense monies to “overseas contingency operations.” This sterile, purposefully vague phrase describes what is essentially a slush fund, separate from the broader defense budget.
But while our military attention was focused on the mountains of Afghanistan, the streets of Iraq, and the deserts of Syria, new threats have emerged—threats that most of our Western allies are wholly unprepared for. Russia and China, fueled by chauvinism and motivated by dreams of imperialist grandeur, launched massive campaigns to expand their militaries and create robust intelligence apparatuses.
THE BEAR AND THE DRAGON
Defense observers often sneer at Russia’s failures in their recent military technology ventures. Sukhoi’s new SU-57 lacks the latest stealth technology, and the Russian Federation has only been able to scrape together enough money to purchase 76 aircraft. Russian ground forces had also planned on acquiring 2,300 T-14 Armata main battle tanks by 2020—but had to push the timeline to 2025, which many experts still predict they’ll fail to meet. Russia’s Northern fleet sits docked, for the most part, rusting away while one official described the plans to modernize its hundreds of ships as a “fiasco.”
But these failures haven’t stopped Vladimir Putin from re-enacting the golden age of Soviet expansion. While the annexation of Crimea drew widespread media attention, Russia’s admittedly impressive involvement in Syria went largely unreported. Its naval base at Tartus is Russia’s only port to the Mediterranean sea, and they were not prepared to lose it. Russia sent thousands of advisers to train and fight alongside Assad’s forces against ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the roughly dozen other non-state actors to claim territory in Syria. Russia mobilized a large air presence to enforce air space and harass coalition aircrafts, all while using its Special Operations capabilities to fortify regime territory and reclaim that which was lost. It proved that the regional power had achieved something we hadn’t seen from them since the 1980s: force projection—the key characteristic of a world power.
More alarming, though, is China. The sleeping dragon continues to smile for the cameras while it builds a military that rivals our own and is capable of dominating any regional opponent. Cold War-era equipment stocks and lackluster training curricula have been replaced by modern weapons systems, communications, body armor, and sophisticated exercises that dwarf those of most of their western counterparts.
Moreover, China is ahead of the curve when it comes to cyberwarfare. Its army invested heavily in the space years before the United States understood the value of defending critical systems against hacker attacks. In addition, China continues to project power throughout Africa, flooding eager third world countries with cash and military advisers, and have launched an island-hopping campaign to claim land without so much a protest in the region.
AMERICA STANDS ALONE
The reluctant and half-hearted allyship of our NATO allies ultimately leaves the United States alone. NATO’s passivity over Russia and China has long established that they don’t take the threats seriously; indeed, it’s not clear they take their own sovereignty seriously. Of course, they’ll continue to lean on the military might of the United States. Why pull your weight when the last three decades have proven that Uncle Sam will foot the bill?
The United States is not the world’s police, and the American people are tired of endless war, sending our sons and daughters to die for reasons that are abstract at best. While we try and disentangle ourselves from the quagmire that is the Middle East and Western Asia, we must reconfigure our large conventional military to ensure a position of strength and readiness, prepared to engage the threats of China and Russia without the support of our NATO partners.