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May 21, 2012

This Week In Threat-Mongering - The NATO Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Scared faceThis weekend as the 28 NATO countries gathered in Chicago the focus has largely been on the future of the alliance's presence in Afghanistan. But there is of course a larger specter haunting the NATO summit, how does the alliance weather a growing era of budget austerity (on both sides of the Atlantic)? How can the burden of funding NATO military operations be shared by all 28 NATO countries?

Mitt Romney it appears has no interest in confronting these issues. Rather his campaign issued a statement that unsurprisingly featured an attack on President Obama for letting NATO down: "NATO's success requires strong American leadership," said Romney  "It also requires its member states to carry their own weight. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has taken actions that will only undermine the alliance. The U.S. military is facing nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten years. And President Obama has sent the message—intentionally or not—that the worth of NATO has diminished in America’s eyes. At this moment of both opportunities and perils, the NATO alliance must retain the capacity to act."

There are a couple of problems here. The first and most glaring is to blame the President for the fact that the Pentagon faces $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten years. This of course was agreed to as part of the debt limit deal from last summer - a crisis almost completely manufactured by House Republicans. If Romney wants to cast blame for the Pentagon and in turn NATO having to do more with less . . . he should talk to the leaders of his own party.

But the real issue is that accusing the United States of not carrying its weight in NATO is, well, ludicrous.  As it is, only 5 of the 28 countries in NATO exceed the agreed upon benchmark of 2% of GDP on defense spending - the US of course spends closer to 5%. The US currently provides between 20-25% of NATO funding; and during the recent Libya War without US military largesse the war would have simply been impossible to wage. Quite simply, Libya provided compelling evidence that without the US, NATO could not exist as a functioning military institution. On missile defense, which is intended to protect NATO allies from missile attack the US is underwriting close to 85% of the funding.

In other words, the biggest problem with NATO funding (and this has been true for quite some time) is not that President Obama is undermining the alliance with defense cuts here at home, but rather that America's NATO allies refuse to fully pony up their share of NATO's defense budget. And why they should they? Indeed, as long as NATO funding is used as a political football then the United States will continue to be played for a sucker by the Europeans who know that for all our complaining about their lack of financial support for the military alliance . . . we're never going to pull the plug.

At some point, it's worth asking whether this makes any sense at all. Why should the US be responsible for underwriting European security (and in turn the European welfare state), especially when European countries face not a single legitimate military threat to their well-being? Moreover, it Europeans don't think it's important enough to spend their own money on their own security why should America? Now granted, the Europeans are a little short on cash these days, but then so is the United States. But of course as the House of Representatives reminded us recently - as they eviscerated key social safety net programs to restore cuts made to the defense budget -- you can't put a price tag on a huge American military that does little to keep America safe and underwrites the security of other countries.

In Romney's statement he noted "NATO is a testament to the fact that the price of weakness is always far greater than the price of strength." If anything it's increasingly becoming a testament to how divorced from reality our own national security debate has become. The new American weakness is apparently when you don't let key European allies take enough advantage of you.

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