Buried in the Trump administration’s $750 billion defense budget for fiscal 2020 is $5.9 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative, a defense welfare program started by the Obama administration in 2014 as a trans-Atlanticist’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A program that takes U.S. taxpayer dollars to defend wealthy European allies is exactly the sort of arrangement that permanent Washington worships — and it’s an example of what then-presidential candidate Donald Trump ran against in 2016.
In Washington, the European Deterrence Initiative, or EDI, is cast as a demonstration of America’s commitment to our European allies. In reality, however, it’s a duplicative program which functions as yet another U.S. entitlement to Europe — a region composed of wealthy and economically vibrant countries amply equipped to take far more responsibility for their own national security. At a time when President Donald Trump is rightly advocating for these European partners to fund their own defense, EDI completely undermines that objective.
When the program was first launched in 2014, eastern European NATO members were downright nervous about their security situation. Two months earlier, Russian special forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula , while Moscow began supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine with high-caliber weaponry, funds, special forces and anti-missile defense systems. There was considerable concern in eastern European capitals, but rather than western Europe stepping up to defend NATO’s eastern flank in an illustration of alliance solidarity, they turned west for Uncle Sam to fill the gap.
This presented a perfect opportunity for the United States to press our European allies to shake off the cobwebs and reverse massive, post-Cold War cuts in their military spending. Instead of U.S. national security officials pressing Germany, France and others about the importance of burden-sharing within the NATO alliance, Washington decided to respond by increasing its own contribution to European security.
While NATO reports registered an increase in non-U.S. military spending in 2015 after consecutive years of cuts, much of that hike was allocated for personnel costs, salaries and benefits — not defense proper. Even when European governments were spending more on defense, they were spending it on the wrong things.
And it appears that problem persists to the present time: Though Germany allocated an additional $5.6 billion to its military accounts over the last year, the capacity of the Bundeswehr is nothing less than pathetic. A recent German parliamentary study found only 50 percent of the German military’s planes, tanks and ships are available for deployment at any given time.
Notwithstanding the rosy words from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about unity and commitment, NATO remains an alliance whose members rely on Washington for their security.
When 16 of 29 NATO members don’t even have a plan to meet their pledge of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, everyone in America should realize what’s going on: European nations either don’t believe the national security environment warrants fielding modern military power, or they’re content with the status quo of free riding on U.S. military power for their own national defense.
This is unfair to the American taxpayer and an unwise arrangement that betrays the very foundation of a military alliance: well-equipped military partners confident in their abilities and willing to use military force to defend and promote shared security interests. Instead, European combat power is severely antiquated, stretching U.S. resources and replacing onetime formidable allies with weak client states.
The prudent move for Trump would be to follow up his rhetoric on the burden-sharing with policies that will incentivize Europe to finally and irrevocably share the burden for defense. This means not only engaging his European colleagues but also incentivizing European governments to finally treat their national security with the seriousness it deserves by spending far more of their own funds on hard power capabilities.
Washington has long perpetuated the unequal distribution of military commitment that has bedeviled NATO since the time of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It can and should reverse this trend by cutting defense programs that perpetuate rather than address the burden-sharing principle the Trump administration has been pursuing. Cutting the Obama-era EDI program — a direct subsidy to rich European nations — would be a good place to start.
EDI is a U.S. taxpayer-funded line item that increased by approximately 650 percent between 2015 and 2018. Although the administration’s latest EDI request is $600 million below last year’s level ($6.5 billion), Congress could easily disregard the decrease and substitute a higher figure during the appropriations process. EDI performs the same exact functions that are purportedly under the purview of the NATO umbrella: joint military exercises, pre-positioning of military equipment, tabletop preparation for wartime activities and deterrence against near-peer competitors. Rather than serving as a supplement to NATO or U.S. security, EDI is a wasteful handout for Europe.
Unfortunately, the existence of the program also signals to Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Rome that Washington will always be there — no conditions attached — to pick up the slack. Why make the difficult but necessary political decision to reinvest in military hardware when the United States will do the work for you?
In an emerging world of great power competition and limited resources, Washington should stop acting as the world’s firefighter and Europe’s first line of defense. Priorities should be set and kept. U.S. officials should demand tough conversations with allies and partners about what the United States is and is not willing to do, and why it is neither fiscally acceptable nor strategically responsible to continue subsidizing the defense of wealthy countries.
Europe is more than financially capable of stepping up and taking more responsibility for its own security. U.S. alliances are only worthy of the name if the allies that American troops are training and fighting alongside are strong and capable partners prepared for all contingencies during a time of crisis. Right now, this is not what the United States has in Europe. Programs such as EDI undermine the burden-sharing concept and embolden wealthy European countries to remain security consumers rather than providers. In the meantime, the American people get stuck with the check.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.