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It Takes More than Two

US expectations for European allies to meet the two percent target are reasonable. However, a meaningful European contribution to burden sharing cannot be measured by a single figure alone

By Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman, Munich Security Conference, Munich

Since US President Donald Trump took office, US demands in the decades-old transatlantic debate on burden sharing have reached a new and serious level of urgency. Whether Europeans like it or not, the issue of defense spending will simply not go away.

On one fundamental question, Donald Trump and European leaders do agree: Europeans need to spend more on defense. At the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, Merkel reaffirmed her commitment to the declaration adopted at the Wales Summit in 2014. At that summit, NATO member states agreed “to aim to move towards the two percent guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s capability shortfalls.” Berlin already increased defense spending by eight percent in 2017, and intends to continue an upward trend in the coming years.

However, the way the Trump administration tries to impose a much more ambitious deadline, demanding an immediate implementation of the two-percent goal, is counterproductive. After all, increasing defense budgets by such a large margin is an immensely controversial political proposition in several countries, not just in Germany. Time pressure will make it more difficult, at worst even politically impossible, for some European leaders to work towards that goal.

What is more, current European procurement structures are simply not able to manage a much steeper increase in defense spending, and the European defense industry is unable to absorb the additional spending so easily. These problems are homemade, and they should, of course, be addressed and resolved. But that takes time. Right now, they stand in the way of a sensible, dramatic rise of defense budgets.

In addition, we need to look at the two-percent target within the larger context of European defense integration. Even big European countries like Germany are too small to afford the full spectrum of armed forces in sufficient depth. Increasing spending without harmonizing European defense capabilities bears the risk of perpetuating current inefficiencies. Currently, European armies use six times more major weapons systems than the US – with only a fraction of US fire power as a result. Thus, Europeans should first decide to sharply reduce the number of different weapons systems before wasting money by looking only at national capabilities. Instead, European NATO allies can and should systematically begin to invest in joint procurement in order to benefit from economies of scale.


In the end, what the United States wants to see is additional European military capabilities, not bigger European military pensions or modernized barracks in Europe – all items that allies might decide to list as relevant expenses towards the two-percent goal. By quickly and drastically increasing their defense budgets but spending the additional money unwisely, Europeans could do more harm than good. Thus, a more balanced transatlantic burden sharing will therefore only be realized through European pooling and sharing of military capabilities.

Finally, what NATO has learned over the last couple of decades is that conflict prevention and conflict management require all instruments of our foreign policy toolbox. While the international coalition may have bombed Daesh out of Mosul, military power alone will not bring sustainable peace to conflict-torn countries like Iraq, Libya or Syria. On the contrary, as now-Secretary of Defense James Mattis noticed during his time as head of the US Central Command: “If you do not fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

Thus, we must spend more – and more smartly – on non-military means as well. And this should be reflected in the way we discuss spending: I have suggested a broader three-percent goal that would not only cover military spending but also investments in diplomacy, development, humanitarian aid and conflict prevention. This is not meant to diminish our commitment to the two-percent goal, but aims to broaden the debate by looking at those budget lines that are at least as relevant to a more sensible definition of providing for security. The increasingly volatile global security environment requires us to spend more – not just on defense, but also on diplomacy and development.

To be sure, many European governments have long been laggards in development spending as well – Germany included. But by spending 0.52 percent of GDP on development in 2016, Berlin has at least moved closer to the goal of 0.7 percent of GDP for official development assistance. In comparison, the US spent only 0.17 percent in the same year, and might even spend less in the future if Trump and his supporters get their way. Today, the EU countries already spend about two-thirds of all economic aid worldwide. In this realm, the United States is “riding Europe’s superpower coattails”, as Princeton professor Andrew Moravcsik put it.

If America wants more balanced burden-sharing and enhanced European contributions to tackle our security challenges, Washington should support and incentivize joint European action and investment in crucial capabilities. This will benefit the Alliance more than insisting that individual NATO allies simply spend more no matter on what. Modern burden-sharing can simply not be measured by a single figure.

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