NATO countries have been promising to spend more money on defense for many years.
In 2006, NATO defense ministers adopted a vague guideline suggesting that each NATO country spend 2 percent of its annual economic output on the military. At the time, most NATO members were spending far less — and little has changed since the 2006 announcement.
In 2014, alarmed by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, NATO heads of state formalized the benchmark and urged countries to move toward it within the next decade. However, most countries have not met it:
Much of Western Europe was especially reluctant to do so, to the frustration of leaders in the United States and Eastern Europe. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama complained about the gap during their presidencies, and Donald Trump has chastised other countries for it. Rich countries like Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands – as well as Japan – appeared to be free riders, able to spend more on their own social safety nets while the US protected them.
But now the situation really seems to be changing.
Last year’s invasion of Ukraine by Russia led to a new willingness of countries to pay for their own defense. “It’s clearly a turning point for Europe in terms of the allocation of spending between military needs and social spending,” said Patricia Cohen, Times economics correspondent based in London. Liz Alderman, a correspondent based in Paris, put it this way: “European leaders have decided that the threat is here to stay.”
Germany looks set to hit the 2 percent threshold next year. In France, which was already close to the goal, President Emmanuel Macron promised to increase military spending by more than a third this decade. Other countries also spend more.
“The degree is incomplete, but the direction of travel is positive,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told me on Friday before leaving for this week’s NATO meeting in Lithuania. At the meeting, US officials plan to push other countries not to stop at 2 percent. “Two percent shouldn’t be seen as a ceiling to hit, but really a floor that should be built on,” Sullivan said.
The arguments for more military spending involve both justice and democracy.
The justice is the same that Bush, Obama and Trump did: At a time when many Americans are frustrated by slowly increasing living standards and the United States has a federal debt of $32 trillion, why would Western Europe effectively bill Washington for protection? And why should richer NATO countries like Germany be less willing to pay for defense than Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Greece and Poland (all of which hit the 2 percent target)?
The democracy point relates to an important issue of Biden’s foreign policy. Global affairs are increasingly defined by a contest between autocracy and democracy, Biden said. On one side are Russia and China. On the other side is the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and a large part of Europe. Democracy is more likely to prevail if countries share the burdens of military spending.
Japan’s leaders seem to agree with this idea. Historically, Japan has spent only about 1 percent of its economic output on the military—a legacy of its post-World War I desire to avoid belligerence, as was also the case for Germany. But starting in 2012, Shinzo Abe, then the prime minister, began to push for a new approach that he argued was better suited to modern realities.
At first, the Japanese public was skeptical. In 2015, people took to the streets to protest a law that allowed Japanese troops to participate in certain combat missions, notes Motoko Rich, The Times’ Tokyo bureau chief.
Today people seem more supportive. Japan’s current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, plans to raise defense spending gradually to 2 percent of economic output, and the public reaction has been “remarkably bloody,” says Motoko. China’s new aggressiveness and North Korea’s nuclear tests help explain the change.
There are trade-offs, of course. The extra money countries spend on defense is money they can’t spend on roads, childcare, cancer research, refugee resettlement, public parks or clean energy, my colleague Patricia points out. One reason Macron insisted on raising France’s retirement age despite widespread protests, analysts believe, is a need to leave more money for the military.
But the situation over the last few decades feels unsustainable. Some of the richest countries in the world were able to spend so much on social programs in part because another country – the United States – paid for their defense. Those other countries, sensing a more threatening world, are now again promising to pull their weight. They have yet to prove that they will follow through this time.
Related: Right-wing Republicans want to use the annual defense bill to pick abortion battles and fight an “awakening” in the military.
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