The 2% defense spending, an inadequate criterion for evaluating allied contributions to NATO

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Since the Cold War the American Administrations have asked to their Europeans counterparts to assume a greater financial burden in its own defense. In the case of the Trump Administration the difference are in his explicit mistrust on NATO and in the brusqueness of its forms, calling ‘delinquents’ to the European allies who benefit from the dollars of American tax-payers.

Obviously, these criticisms contains many elements of truth. U.S. Armed Forces provide key military capabilities to the Alliance as intelligence, command and control, smart munitions or air refueling which are insufficient in the European side. The European allies suffer important expeditionary and operative shortcomings as the 2011 Libya military campaign did put in evidence. In terms of defense expenditure U.S. represents 70 per cent of the overall. However part of that quantity is spent in geographical scenarios not linked to NATO (Indo-Pacific) and at the same time a high expenditure in defense does not guarantee greater security: a powerful armed forces used without strategic competence create and aggravate conflicts and security quagmires, like Washington has demonstrated since the Iraq invasion in 2003.

Inequalities in NATO burden-sharing are real. The question is how to measure the different kinds of contributions in order to establish indicators that appeal to the responsibility of each allied government. Since approximately a decade, the idea that a minimum of 2% GDP defense budget permits to distinguish committed allies from free-riders has taken form. This assessment is the reference criteria since de 2014 Gales Summit declaration. And the goal of all NATO members achieving that percentage has been framed in the context of the Alliance’s response to Russia annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the Ukraine war.

Source: NATO

Although simple and recognizable by the public opinion, the 2 per cent criteria presents important shortcomings:

  • It is an arbitrary figure, taken from the average defense budget of NATO members between 1991 and 2003. This percentage does not come from strategic analysis and planning process.
  • The 2 per cent is only an input. It does not assess in what and how that money is expended. The budget invested in critical military capacities or in R&D provides more information on national contribution to NATO overall military and technological advantage against potential geopolitical rivals.
  • As a criteria the 2 per cent miss the burdens and risks associated to NATO military operations. Greece is the counter-example more often mentioned. Its defence budget exceeds the 2 per cent but –in addition to spend 70 per cent of it in personal– Athens barely contributes to NATO multinational operations, focusing its resources in deterring Turkey (member of NATO). Conversely, other NATO countries do not reach the 2 per cent but contribute actively in numerous allied operations and in big, expensive and complex multinational exercises: one of the more applauded in this sense is Denmark; with France, Norway, Italy and Spain in the same line. Spain for example maintains a Patriot missile battery in Turkey and a mechanized tactical group in Estonia whose strategic sense is only explained in terms of NATO contribution.
  • Finally, the goal of 2 per cent GDP’s defense spending is not credible for many European countries (between them Spain). It is not realistic that European governments, confronted with the social, economic and political present and future challenges derived from the overburden of welfare system, older population and transformation of work, are going to invest heavily in defense without public support. Specially, when the European public opinions have not a clear perception of military threats. Thus, setting as a NATO goal the 2 per cent defense spending entails the risk of boomerang effect, damaging NATO’s credibility if it is not achieved in the deadline stablished.

What to do, then? It is evident that in order to evaluate the burden sharing other metrics are needed. Neither metric is perfect, because as much detailed less understandable for the public opinion and less available will be NATO members to declassify its content. For example, NATO Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Center elaborated in 2011 a set a relevant criteria which embrace from the level of enlistment of air, land and naval assets for deployment in NATO international missions to number of personal attached in NATO Commands. The only country to make public and to evaluate these items was Denmark. Because of understandable reasons few defence ministries are tempted to detail in an open document the level of preparedness of its armed forces: it would be a present to the military intelligence of geopolitical adversaries.

Garrett Martin and Balazs Martonffy offer an interesting alternative. They propose a system in some way analogous to that of rating agencies, with three letters. The three categories to evaluate would be Collective Defense, Crisis Management and Cooperative Security –three NATO core functions– desegregate in its correspondent indicators. This measure would be compatible with the preference of each country in those task more aligned with its defence interests and the strategic culture of its society. The results of the evaluation (being the best the triple AAA) would be more understandable in the public discourse.

Javier Jordan is Associate Professor of Political Science and member of GESI at the University of Granada, Spain | Twitter: @JavierJordanE