Tensions over anemic European defense spending have long suffused transatlantic relations—and since 2014, they have become all-consuming, crowding out other priorities, straining the alliance, and leading to exasperation on both sides of the Atlantic. U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly berated NATO allies for failing to invest more in their militaries, and at big transatlantic gatherings, the issue is the elephant in the room.

President-elect Joe Biden, a committed transatlanticist, will undoubtedly take a less strident tone than his predecessor has done on this issue. But the elephant will still be there, because the European pillar of NATO really is in a sorry state that undermines the alliance’s credibility. The United States does need more from Europe on defense—but the United States also needs to recognize that simply pressing  individual member states to increase their spending is just not working.  

The  European Union has a role to play in the common defense that the United States has long ignored. In fact, the United States has thus far scorned the EU’s defense ambitions and viewed the union as a competitor to NATO. Such an approach serves only to weaken both NATO and the EU, and the incoming Biden administration should reverse it.

Only the EU can integrate and transform Europe’s fragmented and inefficient militaries into a potent pillar of NATO. Supporting its efforts to do so would strengthen not only the U.S. military alliance with Europe but its political one as well. The EU is home to 450 million people, and its economy is the second largest in the world. When Europe is able to act as one through the EU—whether in the realms of global trade, Brexit negotiations, or global regulatory standards—it is a superpower and exactly the potent democratic ally the United States needs. But currently, in the realm of defense, European power amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

The United States needs that to change. And so Washington should drop its long-standing, almost dogmatic opposition to the EU’s involvement in defense and work with its European ally to support a collective European defense that will ultimately strengthen NATO.

An Arbitrary Metric

Defense spending in many NATO countries dipped sharply following the economic crisis in 2008. But events in the year 2014 forced the alliance to reckon with its apparent unreadiness to defend its members’ territory. Russia breached the Ukrainian border, raising an alarm within the alliance about the possible resurgence of threats from its east. At a summit in Wales, leaders of NATO member states agreed to work toward spending a minimum of two percent of their GDP annually on defense within the decade to follow.

Since that time, European states have increased their spending on defense, but overall they have fallen well short of the two percent goal. Despite some progress, U.S. leaders have treated reaching two percent as a requirement—Trump even insisted on four percent. But the deadline is now less than four years away, and just ten out of 30 countries have cleared the two percent threshold, up from three in 2014. European member states that did not dramatically increase defense spending during the tenure of a president who threatened to withdraw the United States from NATO are even less likely to do so now, with budgets under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and an incoming U.S. president they can trust to cover their flank.

Washington should drop its long-standing, almost dogmatic opposition to the EU’s involvement in defense.

Insisting that European states hit two percent by 2024 is setting up the alliance to fail. Not only are these states unlikely to hit the target, but even if they did, the results would likely be underwhelming. The two percent metric is, after all, arbitrary, as it is not tied to specific defense requirements, and is moreover subject to broader economic fluctuations. Greece, for instance, hit two percent only because its GDP contracted so dramatically, increasing its military’s share of the shrinking budget. Indeed, marginal increases in any single country’s defense spending won’t automatically help improve the European pillar of NATO, which is plagued with inefficiencies. EU member states in total spend roughly $200 billion annually on defense, on a par with China. But Europe struggles to deploy forces; it runs out of munitions when it fights; and its forces are seldom prepared to fight.

The problem, then, is not really low spending but that European defense spending is fragmented, wasteful, and redundant. For instance, although Germany is the strongest economic power in Europe, few of Germany’s attack helicopters are ready for combat. France, by contrast, has a very capable military engaged in active combat operations in the Sahel. But French forces depend on U.S. support for those operations. When European states spend on defense, most of them allocate too little of their budgets to research and development and face stark tradeoffs between acquiring expensive new technologies and simply maintaining the forces they have. As the European defense analyst Sven Biscop of the Egmont Institute assesses, “The status of Europe’s armed forces and their dependence on the US will basically remain unaltered, even if they all spend 2 percent of their GDP.” 

A Collective Concern

U.S. leaders have long viewed the EU as just another complicated, multilateral bureaucracy. To the extent that it got involved in defense, Washington imagined, the EU would duplicate and undermine NATO’s function. But the EU has transformed since its founding in 1993, becoming something much more like a state than a multilateral organization. Europeans in the EU are EU citizens, subject to EU law, free to live and work where they please in the union. They have their own currency, a de facto national language (English), and a federal government in Brussels.

As the union has drawn together, Europeans have come to perceive defense and foreign policy as more of a collective concern than a national one. Support across Europe for EU defense is extremely high, consistently polling above 70 percent. Within European states, however, there is considerably less support for diverting national resources away from domestic priorities, such as health and education, and toward the high-end weapons systems that are required to marginally improve NATO’s collective defense capacity. The lack of national interest in defense spending is therefore not a short-term problem for NATO; it is structural.  

The problem is not low spending but that European defense spending is fragmented, wasteful, and redundant.

The EU has sought to expand its role in defense even as its member states have grown more parochial. In 1999, the EU proposed establishing a 60,000-troop rapid reaction force that could deploy around the world without the United States. More recently, the EU created the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), an initiative designed to facilitate defense cooperation among member states, and a European Defence Fund through which to invest more than $1 billion per year in defense projects.

U.S. leaders have greeted such proposals with disdain, sending their European counterparts nasty letters and casting Washington’s diplomatic weight against EU defense efforts. Many in Washington worry that an empowered EU will not only duplicate NATO but become a French-dominated foe that will undercut the alliance and act against the United States. But that notion is absurd: the EU and NATO share 21 of the same member states. If Paris sought to turn EU defense into a Gaullist tool to untether Europe from the United States, it would need the assent not only of the other EU member states but also of Brussels, whose interests lie in sustaining strong transatlantic relations for as long as the United States remains committed to them.

A Strengthened Pillar

 For decades, the United States and other NATO countries have simply accepted duplication and inefficiency as part and parcel of a 30-member multinational alliance. But the EU offers NATO an effective vehicle for pooling resources and transforming the European defense sector. Rather than simply pushing NATO’s member states to spend more, the Biden administration should encourage Europeans to integrate their defense capabilities through the EU.

At the first NATO summit of his administration, President Biden should make clear that the United States has reconsidered its orientation toward EU defense. Biden can support a European Union with “strategic autonomy,” as its leaders have described their objective, while making clear that doing so does not mean detaching Europe’s interests from those of the United States so much as reducing the union’s dependence on U.S. military protection. American officials should encourage the EU’s leaders to invest generously in the European Defence Fund and to upgrade infrastructure so that heavy tanks can better move across Europe.

Empowering the EU in this manner will undoubtedly require organizational adjustments within NATO. But such a necessity should not be viewed in bizarrely apocalyptic terms—as an existential threat to the alliance. Rather, the issue is a bureaucratic one that can be overcome with close coordination between the two organizations. The EU should ultimately work hand in glove with the alliance, much the same way a member state would do.

U.S. support for EU defense will not be a panacea, but it will go a long way toward strengthening the European pillar of NATO. If the United States had fully backed EU defense efforts 25 years ago, European defense would likely be much more robust than it is today. Frustrating inefficiencies would doubtless remain, and deadbeat nations would still resist doing their part. But NATO would likely be a stronger alliance and the EU a better global partner to the United States. The Biden administration should encourage this integration process to begin.

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  • MAX BERGMANN is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2011 to 2017.
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