So far, the German response to Donald J. Trump’s election has been predictable, and predictably loud: Politicians and pundits are rattling on about how Europe needs to bolster its defenses, speeches they have been giving for years.
The doomsayers have a point, of course. President-elect Trump has repeatedly called into question Article 5 of the NATO agreement, the promise to regard an attack on one of its members as an attack on all. And he has demanded that Europe, and the rest of America’s allies, start paying more for his country’s defensive umbrella.
He’s not the first to say it. Leading American politicians have repeatedly told their counterparts over here that the days of American generosity in burden-sharing will soon be over.
Barack Obama said it. Hillary Clinton said it. In a 2011 speech in Brussels, Robert M. Gates, then the secretary of defense, said, “Future U.S. political leaders — those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
And why wouldn’t Americans rethink their commitment? The disparity in spending is enormous: In 2015, the European Union states, with their 550 million citizens, spent $217 billion on defense, while the United States, with its 320 million people, spent $560 billion. Even the Ukraine crisis, and the possibility of Russian expansion toward Eastern Europe, have led to just a few minor increases in military spending. Germany’s recent pledge to spend an additional $8.6 billion on its armed forces between now and 2019 still brings its military expenditures to just 1.2 percent of gross domestic product — far from NATO’s requirement that members devote 2 percent of their gross domestic product to defense.
But for all the postelection chatter in Berlin and elsewhere on the Continent, the truth is that — Trump shock or not — major investments in defense won’t happen here anytime soon. Europe is just not in the mood for it, neither economically nor politically.
To make things worse, at the heart of the foreign policy debate in both the German and the French national elections next year will be relations with Russia. The campaigns will be a battle between alleged peace lovers versus alleged irresponsible Putin warmonger provocateurs.
Germany’s Social Democrats will try to capitalize on the fear of war by demanding rapprochement with Russia. In France, the nationalist Marine Le Pen will go even further, pushing for a cultural alliance with Mr. Putin’s empire as an emancipation from the Brussels establishment rule.
Politics aside, even if, against all odds, the Europeans could decide on major investments in ships, planes and military technology, it would take decades to procure all the hardware.
We need to consider other avenues to self-protection. In fact, the best option may be right in front of us: lease capacity from the United States. The hardware is already in our territory, on Navy, Air Force and Army bases scattered across Europe, and in staging warehouses along NATO’s eastern borders. Instead of letting the Americans withdraw it and replacing it with our own matériel, why not, in effect, rent it from them?
America has a global military base network, high-tech special forces, drones and cutting-edge satellites. Not to mention six fleets and 11 aircraft carrier strike groups. But does it need it all? And can it afford it all? Or has the United States invested too much hope in the power of steel in the past 15 years? Most probably, it has.
Europe, in comparison, has only one full-size aircraft carrier, France’s Charles de Gaulle, but this can accommodate only French fighter planes. Italy and Spain have one carrier each, but they are suited only for vertical takeoffs. Britain is assembling two carriers, but by the time they are ready, the country will probably have left the European Union.
Does Europe need more steel if it wants to underpin its soft power with military strength? Might this be a reason the Continent is not even part of the Syria negotiations in Geneva? Absolutely, yes.
Europe has borrowed American muscle before. In 1941, after Winston Churchill pleaded for help in fighting Nazi Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Agreement.
Under this deal, the United States supplied Britain and other Allied nations with vessels, warplanes and weaponry of all kinds. In return, the United States was given a right to use other countries’ military bases, mostly on British-controlled territory in Europe, Africa and Asia. The policy helped the Allies win the war, and the United States become the successor to the British Empire.
Sure, Europe has no empire on offer today. But it could offer the United States money and breathing space. Americans want a break from their nation’s role as the sole global policeman and would like to spend more on public investment in infrastructure and education.
The United States shoulders an extremely unfair military burden while at the same time loading its youth with student loan debt. This is neither fair nor forward-looking. Can’t we, the West, strike a new deal here? Let’s call it the Steel for School Agreement.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.