When European populations proved too stubborn, or undesirably swayed by socialist or nationalist sentiments, Atlantic integration continued all the same. The Czech Republic was a notable case. Faced with a likely “no” vote in a referendum on joining the alliance in 1997, the general secretary and top officials of NATO were concerned that the government in Prague simply lacked the exercise; the country joined two years later. The new century brought more of the same, with an appropriate shift in emphasis. Coinciding with the global war on terrorism, the “big bang” expansion of 2004 – in which seven countries joined – saw counter-terrorism replace democracy and human rights in alliance rhetoric. Stress on the need for liberalization and reforms of the public sector remained constant.
In the sphere of defense, the alliance was not so announced. For decades, the United States has been the main supplier of weapons, logistics, air bases and combat plans. The war in Ukraine, despite all the talk about Europe getting stronger, left that asymmetry essentially untouched. Remarkably, the scale of US military aid – $47 billion during the first year of the conflict – is more than double than offered by the European Union countries together. European spending pledges may also turn out to be less impressive than they appear. More than a year later the German government publicized the creation of a specialty fund of 110 billion USD for its armed forces, the most of the credits remain unused. Meanwhile, German military commanders said they lacked enough ammunition for more than two days of high-intensity combat.
Whatever the levels of expenditure, it is remarkable how little military capability Europeans get for the expenditure involved. A lack of coordination, as well as penny-pinching, hinders Europe’s ability to ensure its own security. By prohibiting duplication of existing capabilities and encouraging allies to accept niche roles, NATO prevented the emergence of any semi-autonomous European force capable of independent action. In terms of defense procurement, common standards for interoperability, together with the large size of the US military-industrial sector and bureaucratic obstacles in Brussels, favor US firms at the expense of their European competitors. The alliance, paradoxically, seems to have weakened the ability of allies to defend themselves.
However, the paradox is only superficial. In fact, NATO works exactly as it was designed by postwar American planners, drawing Europe into dependence on American power which reduces its maneuvering space. Far from an expensive welfare program, NATO secures American influence in Europe on the cheap. US contributions to NATO and other security assistance programs in Europe account for a tiny fraction of the Pentagon’s annual budget — less than 6 percent by recent assessment. And the war only strengthened the hand of the United States. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, about half of European military spending went to American manufacturers. Rising demand has exacerbated this trend, as buyers rush to acquire tanks, fighter jets and other weapons systems, locking into expensive, multi-year contracts. Europe may be remilitarizing, but America is reaping the rewards.
In Ukraine, the pattern is clear. Washington will provide the military security, and its corporations will benefit from a bounty of European armaments, while Europeans will shoulder the cost of post-war reconstruction – something Germany is more prepared to accomplish than the build-up of its military. The war also serves as a dress rehearsal for an American confrontation with China, in which European support cannot be counted on so easily. Limiting Beijing’s access to strategic technologies and promoting American industry are hardly European priorities, and disrupting European and Chinese trade is still hard to imagine. However, there are already signs that NATO is making progress in getting Europe to follow its lead in the theater. Ahead of a visit to Washington at the end of June, the German defense minister duly promoted his awareness of “European responsibility for the Indo-Pacific” and the importance of “the international order based on rules” in the South China Sea.