US President Donald Trump has German ancestral roots, but his unfolding policy on NATO shows little regard for the Fatherland. Indeed, the signs are that Trump wants to recklessly pimp off German economic prowess as a short-term fix for the United States’ chronic problems.
When Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, and his defense secretary James Mattis came to Europe last week, their central hardball message was this: OK you European wimps, cough up more funds for our NATO club – «or else!»
Mattis warned other members of the 28-member alliance while visiting its headquarters in Brussels that the US would «no longer protect European children» if Europe did not pay its «fair share» to NATO.
Then vice president Pence underscored the ultimatum when he addressed the Munich Security Conference a few days later. Pence told the Europeans if they didn’t already have plan to reach the stipulated NATO spending target of 2 per cent of GDP then they ought «to get one».
Moreover, Pence gave a deadline of one year for the Europeans to get their act together on NATO financial contributions.
The American officials pointedly didn’t take media questions and appeared to be reading from scripts, suggesting that they were on an errand from the White House to get tough over NATO budgets.
Subsequently, this week in an interview with Reuters, Trump reiterated his grievance that European members of NATO are not pulling their weight. In typical testy tone, he asserted «they owe us a lot of money».
The soliciting of Europe by Washington to pay more into NATO is not a new development. During the previous administration, President Barack Obama made several appeals for European states to boost financial contributions to NATO. At a summit in September 2014, in Wales, NATO members agreed to hit the target of 2 per cent of GDP, largely at the behest of American cajoling, but have still not delivered on that promise.
Superficially, the Americans appear to have a winning argument. The US spends over 3 per cent of its GDP on military, while the EU average is half that at around 1.4 per cent. Only four other members of NATO implement the 2 per cent target along with the US: they are Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia.
With a total annual spend of some $600 billion on military, the US accounts for 70 per cent of the aggregate NATO budget.
Put in those terms, one can see how the Americans could feel they are carrying a bunch of freeloading Europeans in the «defense of the transatlantic bond».
But such a view is a narrow, egocentric misunderstanding of the strategic importance of NATO to American hegemonic interests. It also fails to understand how the US economy is fatally flawed from its inordinate reliance on military spending for its functioning. The Americans are not propping up NATO out of some sort of misplaced chivalry – as the egocentric US view would have it. Far from it, NATO is a crucial military platform for US involvement and geopolitical control over Europe.
In the same that US military forces in the Middle East and Asia are vital for American power projection in those strategic regions.
The notion that America «might withdraw its protection» from various allies is a conceited fallacy. America would never do such a thing because its global hegemonic interests are totally reliant on its military network and its insinuation into the affairs of other countries.
However, the fatal problem for the Americans is that with its capitalist economy waning as an historic paradigm, not merely from a cyclical downturn, the US cannot maintain the gargantuan spend on its military as it has done since the Second World War. The annual US military budget of $600 billion is equal to the combined spends of the next seven biggest national budgets, including China, Russia, Britain and France.
In years gone by, the US military-industrial complex served as a massive engine for its wider economy, boosting other manufacturing sectors and consumerism. But with much of American manufacturing either automated or off-shored to cheap labor countries, the traditional functioning of the military-industrial complex as an economic driver has greatly diminished. Thus, US military spending is more and more simply being squandered by running up an ever-ballooning national debt – currently about $20 trillion.
This would explain why recent US governments have taken up the mantra of getting their allies around the world to pay up more into long-standing military arrangements. Trump has taken up the mantra with gusto, hectoring Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the Europeans to step up to the plate with more military expenditure.
What the American agenda appears to be is this: offload the cost of its crippling military-industrial complex to its supposed partners and allies. If nations around the world can be browbeaten into spending more on military weapons, then the US stands to gain from trillions-of-dollars-worth of purchases going forward. In effect, America will get the rest of the world to bail out its chronically bankrupt, failing economy.
Being a wheeler-dealer property tycoon, Trump is well suited to such a concept.
In Europe, Germany represents the juiciest target for Washington to pimp off for this military largesse.
Trump evidently tends to view German economic success with disdain. He recently chided Berlin for abusing the European Union as a vehicle for its own selfish enrichment. As ever, Trump has a superficial point. Germany’s export-driven economy is boasting a record trade surplus, arising from the relative decline of the euro currency, thus boosting German exports.
Germany’s spending on military has also shrunk since the high of the Cold War to a current 1.2 per cent of its GDP – one of the lowest rates in NATO.
As Der Spiegel notes, the US is now piling the pressure on Germany to raise its NATO contributions. As Europe’s strongest economy, if Germany does not increase its military spend, then lesser European states will also not make the effort in the way that Washington desires.
It is significant that German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen was hosted in Washington by Pentagon chief James Mattis the week before he and US vice president Pence came to Europe with their pay-up ultimatum. Der Spiegel reported that Von der Leyen didn’t pick up on the urgency of what Mattis was saying the first time around when she visited Washington. When Mattis and Pence delivered the get-tough message in Europe, the German minister was reportedly taken aback by the imperious tone of the Americans.
Nevertheless, like a dutiful vassal, Von der Leyen and the rest of Angela Merkel’s government appear to be willing to acquiesce to the American demands to dramatically raise military spending.
But such an American military «fix» seems to be woefully short-sighted with hugely damaging repercussions if implemented.
For a start, if European states were to rise to the US challenge of hitting a 2 per cent of GDP target for military spending that is estimated to compute to a total of nearly $100 billion annually. In an age of economic austerity, it seems completely infeasible for Europe to allocate such exorbitant finances. The resulting strains on the EU’s already fragile economies would be disastrous for social conditions, and would no doubt spur even more anti-EU political movements.
For Germany in particular, reaching a 2 per cent spending target would translate into Berlin allocating an extra $23 billion annually to its military budget – up from the current $37 billion to $60 billion, according to Der Spiegel.
As Der Spiegel commented that increase would make Germany the biggest military spender in Europe – ahead of both Britain and France. Given Germany’s horrendous history of militarism such an outcome would have deeply unsettling political ramifications right across Europe.
Another damaging repercussion from American urging on NATO spending are the implications for more insecurity between Europe and Russia.
If European states – Germany in particular – were to heed the American call and scale up military forces even more than present that would have serious consequences for Russia’s national security.
The danger of a new global arms race is a deep concern, according to the London-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).
CAAT spokesman Andrew Smith said in an email to Strategic Culture Foundation: «The last thing that’s needed is a new arms race between the West and Russia. Both sides need to focus on the needs of their own populations, not on ratcheting up tensions. The kind of military spending we’re seeing from both sides isn’t just taking money out of vital services, it’s also exacerbating tensions and making the world a more dangerous place».
Tensions between Europe and Russia are bad enough as it is. European states bristling with even more military forces on Russia’s western flank would be even more tremendously destabilizing.
From a blinkered American point of view, getting Germany and Europe to militarize might seem like a smart idea. A bit like selling skyscrapers whose foundations are on a fault line. Great for a quick buck. But in any reasonable assessment, such economic pimping is bound to be disastrous.