Airbus, alliances, Boeing, Charles Dickens, Defense Department, EU, European Union, foreign policy establishment, free-riding, NATO, North Atlantic treaty Organization, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, subsidies, Trade, trade law, Trump, World Trade Organization, WTO
Charles Dickens famously observed that the law can be an idiot. Last week’s World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling on U.S. and European Union (EU) aerospace subsidies reminds that American alliance policy can be idiotic – and in a key respect has been for decades. The fault here lies not with the WTO – which is hardly beyond criticism. Instead, the problem entails an American approach to international security relationships that continues a decades-long record of enabling brazen free-riding even under the current U.S. administration – which so far has decried this practice only rhetorically.
Interestingly, the WTO decision last Friday looks like a big win for American aerospace giant Boeing and a big loss for its EU rival Airbus. The trade body ruled as still illegal only one of the original 28 subsidies provided Boeing by Washington state and the federal government that were challenged by Airbus. According to Airbus, the WTO agreed with its allegation that some of the other 27 means of Boeing support were subsidies, but Boeing says that since the ruling determined that these payments had not harmed Airbus, they can remain in place. Airbus disagrees, so expect more litigation.
But here’s what’s completely outrageous. Some of the subsidies Airbus successfully challenged – at least on paper so far – were U.S. Defense Department subsidies. It’s jaw-dropping enough to recognize that Airbus gets military support, too. What’s worse is that so much of the Pentagon money handed over to Boeing (and other defense contractors) has been spent on weapons and other military systems that the United States would not need at all or in such quantity either if Washington hadn’t taken on any role in protecting Europe for decades, or if the Europeans bore anything like an appropriate burden for the own defense.
And don’t forget: For decades, even most U.S. Presidents and other foreign policy establishmentarians who have assign supreme value to continuing current transatlantic security arrangements agree that too many European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have been shirking. Talk about biting the hand that shields you.
It’s important, however, to keep in mind who’s mainly to blame. It’s clear that the Europeans deserve no high marks for either gratitude or loyalty. But it’s also clear that their actions can be reasonably portrayed as legitimate efforts to maximize their own self interests – reflecting the equally reasonable judgment that these gambits long have been good bets to succeed.
What the American public needs to ask is (a) why their leaders have handled alliance relationships so ineptly as to have created expectations of free-riding that the WTO case shows are now seen as nothing less than a right to free-ride; and (b) whether the avowedly transactional Trump administration will view the EU defense subsidy charges as a long overdue opportunity to say enough’s enough.