The London-based Financial Times takes stock of President Obama’s defense pivot, and makes some recommendations to its European readership:
The Obama administration is right to make these cuts. After all, the economic crisis is arguably the biggest threat to western security today. Defence, like other budgets, must be pared back to boost fiscal credibility. The US must also learn from the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, moving away from fighting long counterinsurgency campaigns, and thinking more smartly about how to use air power, special forces and drones.
What this change in US policy must also do is prompt Europe to think harder about its own capabilities. For the past half century, Europe has assumed that the US will rush to its aid in any crisis. That assumption no longer holds. In Libya last year, the US warned that it expects European nations to take the lead when crises erupt in their own backyard. Yet Europe’s reaction to that warning – and to the US shift towards Asia – has thus far been disappointing.
Europe is failing on numerous fronts. Most European nations are slashing defence spending. Many still have forces that are not deployable. As Philip Hammond, Britain’s defence secretary, argued last week: “Too many countries are failing to meet their financial responsibilities to Nato, and so failing to maintain appropriate and proportionate capabilities.”
Whistling past the graveyard. As has been pointed out in these pages many times, the ongoing financial crisis is not defense driven – we are currently expending a historically low percentage of our Gross Domestic Product on DoD accounts. What has changed is that entitlement programs have mushroomed to hitherto unthinkable levels, and they show no signs of abating. Spending on social services has taken all the oxygen out of the federal budget, even as deficit spending has risen to giddying heights. Slashing defense spending is not the cure, but rather a palliative: The patient is bleeding out, and in response the doctors are surgically removing a leg. True, that will reduce the gross need for blood, at least for a little while. But it does nothing to stanch the bleeding.
They’re called “entitlements” because, once the public has been introduced to them, they feel entitled to equal or greater levels of dependency. Rolling them back requires massive expenditures in political capital, and virtually guarantees popular revolt. See also; Greece, Italy.
And the issue for the European contributors to NATO is that their own social safety nets are already far more interwoven into everyday life than is our own. They have arrived at the terminus of the benefactor/supplicant trail, or very nearly. Europe now maintains a military capability more for a sense of prestige than for any feeling of practical necessity, add a dash of foreign sales.
Just as some European countries maintain the vestiges of monarchy for decorative purposes, a march of soldats down the Champs Elysees stirs a vestigial sense of la Gloire de France. And the one European country that has slack capacity for increased military spending – Germany – carries the dual burdens of history and transfer payments to spendthrift southron partners. This is also why there are Eurofighters and Rafales in Europe but few aerial refueling tankers and next to no strategic airlift: Fighters are sexy, logistics, not so much, despite the fact that it’s airlift and tankers that get you to the fight before the fight gets to you.
The president and his colleagues desperately want to “help” people, not only because they feel that’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s damn good job security. The general sentiment towards taxation in this country means they have just about run out of other peoples’ money to spend, and our foreign creditors are looking at our debt rating with rational skepticism. If you can’t trim mandatory spending – or don’t want to – that leaves you with defense; people, retirement and health benefits, mostly. It makes good theater to tell Europe that it’s time to lift their share of the communal burden.
The problem is that Europe has landed where the president and his party is going. There’s no turning back.
Meanwhile: China, Iran and the man who isn’t there.