Josef Stalin, when asked in 1935 whether he could do anything with Russian Catholics to help win favor with the pope against the increasing Nazi threat, famously responded: “How many divisions has he got?” Almost 80 years later, his successor, Vladimir Putin, busy with his aggression in Ukraine and listening to the outcry from European leaders, faces the same question. Unfortunately for Ukraine and for the United States, Europe today is much like the pope was in 1935, with little military power, and what there is doesn’t work very well.
Europe’s politicians, obsessed with expanding the rolls of their welfare states, focused on public assistance programs rather than their own security, content to rely on U.S. armed forces to protect them from the growing Russian threat, have stripped away the Continent’s ability to defend itself. The great military power of Europe, the power that helped sweep away the Nazis, the power that built the greatest military alliance in history, an alliance that defended individual liberty successfully for 50 years against the authoritarianism of Russia’s Soviet experiment, no longer exists. Military readiness has fallen victim to Europe’s unquenchable thirst for ever-expanding social welfare payments to their citizenry. Europe today is militarily weak, unable to do much more than protest, shouting loudly at Mr. Putin, who cares little for what they have to say as he carves up Ukraine, because he understands all they can do is complain.
While Europeans are quick to criticize the United States for being heavy-handed, unsophisticated and domineering, they are more than willing to allow U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill for their safety, content to rely on an ally they find disagreeable, all to achieve savings — savings they can pass on to their citizens in the form of more government benefits. In the decade following Sept. 11, 2001, as the United States geared up to fight terrorists, Europeans cut their defense spending by nearly 15 percent. In 2012, only five NATO members — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Greece and Albania — exceeded the agreed-upon spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product for national security. The United States now carries more than 75 percent of the costs of NATO operations. The world’s greatest alliance, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, has become divided between “those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burden of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership — be they security guarantees or headquarters billets — but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.”
The effects of Europe’s willingness to trade away defense for welfare programs are easy to see. In Afghanistan, NATO’s European members struggled mightily to collectively field 25,000 to 40,000 troops, roughly the equivalent of two to four U.S. infantry divisions. NATO operations against Syria, with Europe in the lead and the United States in support, were not impressive. Every NATO member voted to attack the Moammar Gadhafi regime, yet less than one-third participated in actual combat operations, and less than one-half participated at all, because they lacked the military capability to do so.
Seventeen NATO countries, countries the United States is bound to defend if attacked, have a combined military strength of fewer than 45,000 troops. During the air campaign against Libya, to protect what Europe said was a vital European interest, the Europe-led operations center, designed to control more than 300 sorties per day, struggled to launch half that number. Eleven weeks into the campaign, the Europeans ran out of bombs. The United States had to step in and give them bombs so the air campaign wouldn’t collapse. Is there any wonder why Mr. Putin seems unfazed by Europe’s loud rhetoric about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine?
The transfer of European defense costs to the United States has eroded NATO’s military capabilities in ways less visible. Some countries have simply eliminated entire military systems. Britain has no more aircraft carriers, five NATO countries have eliminated their armored ground forces, and there is more to come because these vertical cuts are the only way countries with grossly inadequate spending authorizations can meet their defense budgets.
Across-the-board cuts in military enablers, such as theater missile defense, cyberdefense and medical support, are hollowing out European combat forces. The units continue to exist on paper, but they are not trained, equipped or ready, the equivalent of false storefronts in a Western ghost town — nothing behind the facade.
The diversion of funds from military to social welfare programs in Europe has already eroded NATO’s capabilities to the point where it can no longer perform the full range of military missions needed to protect the Continent. While Europe’s leaders remain fixated on the welfare state, the U.S. military has quietly assumed the burden, in lives and in national treasure, for guarding the Europeans against anything that even remotely approaches a military threat. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines continue to stand watch, over an ever-increasing number of European countries, looking eastward, guarding Western freedoms, but increasingly, they are standing alone. Europe’s sentinels have gone home.
Maj. Gen. Bruce Lawlor, retired from the Army, is a former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security and a former special assistant to the NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe.