International Policy Digest

Henry Villarama/U.S. Army
World News /01 Dec 2020
12.01.20

A Friend in the White House: What a Biden Presidency Means for Defense Spending in Europe

Many Europeans breathed a collective sigh of relief when they found out Vice-President Joe Biden had defeated President Donald Trump. Most European leaders were quick to congratulate the new president, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who expressed their joy shortly after the results came in.

With Biden in the White House, there is hope among traditional allies that the United States and Europe can rebuild ties of cooperation. These include – first and foremost – addressing the coronavirus pandemic, tackling climate change, and walking back four years of damaging trade tariffs. Though these tasks require immediate attention, the United States and Europe will eventually have to address gaps in burden-sharing within NATO, specifically, gaps in defense spending.

The president-elect should take the defense spending debate in a new direction. He should seek an early NATO summit, change the argument surrounding the NATO 2% defense spending benchmark, and support EU-led defense initiatives.

American pressure on European governments to spend more on defense has been a constant since NATO’s creation in 1949. Under President Trump, that pressure boiled over. The president repeatedly questioned the basis of NATO, pulled American troops out of Germany, and discussed leaving the Alliance altogether.

He exploited the easily explainable 2% of GDP guideline to communicate Europe’s defense spending delinquency while playing on the common misconception that European NATO members somehow owe the United States membership dues. Trump has portrayed NATO as yet another multinational organization bent on fleecing the United States and infringing on its sovereignty.

This strategy seemed to have had a huge, positive impact on defense spending among NATO Europe. But the “Trump effect,” was only incidental to members’ already increasing defense budgets, a reaction to Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Nine European members now meet the 2% goal set out at the NATO Wales Summit in 2014, and many others are on track to meet the goal before or just after the deadline in 2024.

There is no doubt that NATO needs more funding to produce capable militaries and reduce burden-sharing rifts. And although this increase in spending may seem like good news for the United States and the Alliance as a whole, the “Trump effect” did more harm than good.

President Trump’s strategy undermined the Alliance instead of strengthening it. The European members that reached 2% received special treatment from the United States, while repeat offenders such as Germany suffered sharp criticism. This is hardly the mark of a solidarity-based alliance.

President-elect Biden will need to think creatively on how to keep the pressure on European allies without employing Trump’s toxic approach. Biden’s support for NATO, like that of the U.S. Congress, is rock solid. He once said that when in office he would, “take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances,” and revisit some of Trump’s harmful policies such as removing troops from Germany. But not much is known about how the president-elect will address the 2% question or increasing defense spending in general.

Biden’s first step should be to seek an early NATO summit to signal the end of the Trump era. He should outline exactly what the next four years will look like for defense spending. 2% still means 2%. But this summit would provide an uplifting shift away from the chaotic and anxious summits of the past four years. It would provide a space to discuss important matters without having to worry about merely surviving the day.

Second, Biden should reshape the narrative surrounding 2%. That number is a politically convenient way to portray members’ commitments and capabilities. But there’s a lot more to it. Another target set out at Wales was 20% of spending on equipment and R&D. While 2% is purely a measure of input, the 20% target can better measure the outputs that directly affect broader NATO security and better highlight how members add value. Biden should focus on this more nuanced approach because it encourages members to spend in areas that matter.

Third, Biden should support EU-led defense initiatives such as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). It will lead to far more efficient defense spending. The EU’s recent decision to allow third countries to participate in PESCO projects clears a hurdle for transatlantic defense cooperation. Military mobility, a NATO priority, could benefit from U.S. industry expertise down the line.

President-elect Biden should prepare to address the 2% question in a new light. Four years of damage requires, at a minimum, four years of repair. As Europeans take in a breath of fresh air, they should be ready to get to work. A modern and capable NATO still requires their initiative. But it is a lot easier to breathe and to do that work with a friend in the White House.