Recently, Republican politicians like businessman Donald Trump and Senator Bob Corker have criticized the disparities in defence spending between the US and its allies. On the other side of the aisle, President Obama has voiced similar concerns. He has called on other nations to share the burden of global security and advocated a policy of ‘leading from behind’. At the heart of such concerns about American leadership in global politics is a question of justice. Is it fair that the US funds roughly a quarter of NATO’s budget? Is it fair that the US sends supplies, troops, and funding abroad in an effort to maintain the world order while other powerful Western nations like Britain, Germany, and France sit back and benefit from it too?
The answer is yes. Fixating on raw numbers misses the point. The US should spend more than other countries on global defence for two reasons: first, it benefits most from the world order, and second, the leadership role it assumes demands monetary leadership as well.
The US pays more than its European allies in global defence spending because it benefits most from global stability. For example, the US spends more money than its allies on efforts to stabilize the high seas because it trades more than any ally. According to the CIA World Factbook, the US exceeds in imports Germany, Europe’s largest importer, by twice as much. By the UK, roughly four times. US exports also exceed that of other European allies. Therefore, it is in US interest to invest more in security efforts like control of the South China Sea. It has more skin in the game.
Most Americans and politicians still advocate that the US leads the world in security issues. Hillary Clinton’s campaign calls for ‘confident leadership’ that ‘shapes global events’. Ted Cruz wants the US to ‘exert leadership on the global stage’. Even President Obama, who has been careful to distinguish global leading from policing, calls his foreign policy ‘a new era in American leadership’. Leadership implies decision-making power, and the policies these politicians desire requires it. By spending more, the US can justify calling the shots when it comes to coalition-wide decisions like what to do in Syria and Libya, or making unpopular decisions like invading Iraq in 2003. Asking other nations to bear an equal burden to the US and then asking them to follow American direction would be truly unfair. That’s why President Obama’s ‘leading from behind’ policy is as contradictory as it sounds. As he explained to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama tries through his foreign policy to induce other nations to defend the current liberal world order. He wants other nations to stand up to global threats like terrorism, and Russian and Chinese aggression. However, the US cannot expect to call the shots, like with the Libyan intervention, while asking other nations to cough up a more equal share of the costs.
It’s also true, though, that US resources are limited. To reduce resource costs, the US should increase efficiency in resource allocation between and among allies. Indeed, the US need not demand more defence spending from its partners if it reevaluates what it demands of them. The US should selectively pressure different nations to reallocate funds, spending more on specific programs that advance US security goals collectively. The US needs to negotiate defence consolidation and cooperation among its partners in Europe – a pathway to mutual defence.
Now is an opportune moment for the US to lead this movement, as the tides of recent events pull Europe towards consolidation and cooperation. The refugee crisis and Belgium and Paris attacks highlighted the transnational nature of today’s security most salient security threats, and consequently the need for multinational defence. After the November attack, French President Frances Hollande invoked Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which states all members must help any member that becomes ‘the victim of armed aggression’, also known as the ‘Solidarity Clause’. Last summer the German cabinet approved a strategy paper calling for closer security cooperation. A 2013 report by McKinsey shows that European leaders expect defence to move from national to multinational structures in Europe. That same report shows that European nations, despite anticipating increased demand for defence capabilities, resolve to spend less on defence. The US should capitalize on these sentiments, advertising that increased ‘smart sharing’ would allow European nations both increased capabilities and minimized national defence budgets.
The US outspends all other countries on defence, accounting for about 40 per cent of the world’s military spending. To spend less, though, would be to risk US interests abroad as well as standing. If the US pressures European allies to spend more and to do more abroad, it must be prepared to work with allies as a partner, not as the decision-maker. For this reason, the US should work in the direction of the current, not against it, and advocate smarter, not larger, budgets. In this moment, policy-makers have a choice to make about what they want American leadership to look like, if they want it to look like leadership at all.