Chuck Hagel last week became the latest US defense secretary to press Europe to increase defense spending in a message his predecessors have delivered over far too many decades.
Hagel rightly argues that recent Russian actions should fuel more spending, and chided major European powers for cutting just as the continent’s smaller nations ramp up.
Britain, France, Germany and Italy are all dialing back spending just as “frontline” states such as the Baltics, Finland, Norway, Poland, southeastern European nations and Sweden make the tough choices needed to increase military investment.
While America, too, is cutting spending, the difference is Washington still retains broad global capabilities that Europe lacks, as evidenced by the Libya campaign that depended on US involvement.
Speaking last week in Washington, Airbus CEO Tom Enders rightly noted that not only does Europe spend too little on defense, spending is scattershot, leading to wasteful national projects rather than concretely addressing capability shortfalls.
The issue isn’t merely preserving European defense industries that are in danger of collapsing without sufficient sales volume or investment.
Ultimately, an increasingly integrated Europe’s ability to play a meaningful role in global diplomacy is undermined by its military inadequacies. Enders is right; speaking softly works best when there is a looming danger of being hit with a very big stick.
This isn’t a spending question, but one of relevancy: Does the world’s leading economic union want to play a commensurately important global role?
Also troubling is the question of will on both sides of the Atlantic, which spending alone won’t solve.
If America has the means but not the will to act and its leading partner, Europe, has the will but not the capacity to do so, the world is in trouble.
A strong, balanced Atlantic alliance is the cornerstone of global security, but only if both ends of the equation make available the resources and the commitment to ensure their words aren’t empty rhetoric from incapable mouths.