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Twenty-three years ago, I published an article (which you can download here) on defense burden-sharing in the America’s premier national security alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), titled “Promises, Promises.” I borrowed the title from a 1968 Broadway musical that was ultimately about cynically made pledges because I thought it was perfect for a study that documented how NATO’s European members kept welshing on their vows to raise their defense spending to serious levels – and how the real blame ultimately rested with an overly indulgent United States.

Twenty-three years later, the first major war in Europe since 1945 keeps dragging on, and fresh evidence makes clear (a) that the Europeans (both inside and outside NATO) remain defense deadbeats; and (b) that a prime reason remains their so-far-well-founded confidence that they can rely on the United States to pick up any slack.

Not that no burden-sharing progress has been made at all. As NATO itself just reported, seven members (including the United States) have now met the guideline of spending at least two percent of their national economic output on the military. That’s up from three in 2014.

Just three problems here. First, NATO has thirty members, meaning that the vast majority are still skimping on defense. Second, the two percent guideline was agreed to in 2014. Even had no Ukraine War broken out, that would be a pretty modest move in nine years. With a conflict raging in Europe itself, it’s minimal at best. And in fact, only one NATO country crossed that two percent threshhold since the Russian invasion – Lithuania, which is located awfully close to the war zone.

Third, the NATO guideline is just that – an aspiration, not a hard-and-fast promise, let alone something contained in a legally binding treaty. And reportedly, there’s scant enthusiasm among alliance members for raising it.

Of course, in this Ukraine War era, defense spending isn’t the only contribution that can be made to Europe’s security, and NATO isn’t the only grouping capable of helping out. But the widely followed “Ukraine Support Tracker” compiled by Germany’s Kiel Institute for the World Economy shows that after some brief, belated signs that countries in the European Union (EU – whose members contain both most NATO countries and others on the continent) were collectively stepping up with both military and mainly economic aid for Ukraine, these countries have begun slacking off again in relative terms.

As the Kiel analysts put in their February 21 update:

Over 2022, the US led the way with major support decisions for Ukraine, with EU countries following with some delay and overtaking the US in the meantime with their total commitments. With additional data now collected (November 21 to January 15), the US again takes the lead.”

The specific numbers? “With additional pledges of nearly 37 billion euros in December, the Americans have earmarked a total of just over 73.1 billion euros for Ukraine support. For the EU, the comparable figure is 54.9 billion euros.”

My “Promises, Promises” article documented in detail that the European NATO members kept free-riding on the United States because Washington repeatedly all but told them that America’s commitment to Europe’s defense would remain unchanged whatever the allies did spending-wise.   

These days, President Biden has also essentially invited the Europeans to free ride by repeatedly declaring that the United States would stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggression – as he expressed it most recently last month in Poland – “no matter what.”  

Foreign policy realists (a group that should include you as well as me) aren’t mainly bothered by the flagrant unfairness of this situation. As long as it’s tolerated by the United States, free-riding is arguably in the interests of the NATO allies – and ultimately that’s what realists believe foreign policymaking should be all about (though allied leaders might usefully ponder the possible limits of even American patience).     

Instead, the main concern is pragmatic. In the end, allies are worth having only if they can be counted on to join a fight if one breaks out. At the very least, how can any military engage in any useful planning without knowing what forces will be available? Allies like the NATO free-riders, which plainly aren’t ready to make significant sacrifices on behalf of common security during peacetime, seem anything but dependable in the event of hostilities. That’s something Mr. Biden urgently needs to think through before his Ukraine policy creates the acid test.