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Lloyd Austin's more of the same message to NATO

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 2/18/2021 Daniel DePetris
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Later on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will conclude two-days of virtual meetings with his NATO colleagues. His mission: assure allies that the United States can be relied upon again. Austin telegraphed this message in the Washington Post, writing that "teams succeed only when every player is trusted and respected. And our alliance teammates haven’t always felt that respect."

How predictable.

The conventional Washington wisdom is that former President Donald Trump caused NATO to suffer an existential crisis. Certainly, Trump seemed to enjoy poking Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel in the eye, questioning the validity of NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee and talking down the alliance as a relic of a 20th century world that no longer existed. But in the grand scheme, Trump’s tough rhetoric turned out to be just that — rhetoric. On matters of substance, Trump’s European security policy was essentially an extension of Washington’s NATO policy over the last seven decades. If NATO was suffering a crisis, it was more one of psychology than of anything else.

Many in the Beltway would take serious issue with this characterization.

Despite all the hysteria about Trump possibly withdrawing from the alliance or ignoring Article 5, NATO’s already large size was further bloated by the incorporation of two new members (Montenegro and North Macedonia). Notwithstanding Trump’s legitimate gripes about European governments skimping on their defense budgets, the U.S. force posture on the continent hardly changed. U.S. troops continued to deploy into the Baltic states, the Trump administration ordered U.S. bombers to conduct presence patrols over the Black Sea, and it even reached a defense agreement with Poland to station a U.S. Army brigade on the alliance’s eastern flank.

The European Deterrence Initiative, a U.S.-created fund that duplicates NATO’s core responsibilities, also saw an influx of cash during the Trump era. There was a time in fiscal year 2019 when the Trump administration increased the EDI budget by 90% over the Obama administration’s 2o16 allotment. While Trump did order a withdrawal of 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany, the decision came so late that the Pentagon was able to stonewall it until Trump left office.

The realignment of the U.S. military force structure that many foreign policy realists believe is necessary is now on hold until further notice. Downsizing the U.S. military commitment to Europe could have occurred on Trump’s watch; instead, the commitment deepened.

In a call with reporters shortly before Austin’s meetings, senior U.S. defense officials outlined two main points the secretary would carry with him. First, that because alliances are force multipliers, they should be nurtured. Second, NATO should start to prioritize China in its discussions. The difficult but absolutely integral topic of burden-sharing, according to those officials, will proceed in a softer and more respectful tone.

This is a mistake.

Merely going through the motions and reiterating NATO’s 2014 defense spending commitment is not sufficient. While the 2% of GDP defense spending target provides the alliance with a benchmark, simply throwing more cash at the problem doesn’t automatically mean European governments will spend on the right capabilities. The uncomfortable truth is that Europe won’t make the choice to take primary responsibility for its own security if the U.S. refuses to do less on the continent itself. That means, in part, recognizing when billion-dollar programs such as EDI are derivative. It means recognizing that U.S. military posture currently encourages wealthy European allies to view burden-sharing as a concept rather than an operational principle.

Austin’s conversations with NATO will get widespread applause. But they won't serve U.S. interests effectively.

Tags: Opinion, Beltway Confidential, Blog Contributors, Lloyd Austin, NATO, National Security, Defense Spending

Original Author: Daniel DePetris

Original Location: Lloyd Austin's more of the same message to NATO

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