Eastern Europe wants NATO to beef up defence spending

    WORLD  04 February 2023 - 08:35

    The Foreign Policy magazine has published an article, where it says that Poland and Estonia are planning to push the alliance to raise its defense spending benchmark this year to at least 2.5 percent of GDP. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    A handful of NATO countries are pushing to raise the alliance’s defense spending benchmark from 2 percent to 2.5 percent or even 3 percent of member countries’ GDP, according to six current and former European and U.S. officials familiar with the matter, a move that could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars in new defense spending if approved.

    The initiative, pushed in diplomatic circles by Poland and Estonia, is a long shot and may face significant pushback from Western European powers already struggling to meet the existing NATO defense spending benchmark of 2 percent of GDP. But it reflects a mounting concern among NATO members on the alliance’s eastern flank that Europe is ill-equipped for a long-term military showdown with Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine last year.

    “We do expect that against the backdrop of everything that’s going on, the NATO commonly agreed level should be higher than 2 percent,” Estonia’s ambassador to the United States, Kristjan Prikk, told Foreign Policy in a message, noting that discussions were still ongoing as to what the proposed new benchmark should be.

    Discussions around the proposal are still in the early stages and a concrete figure has yet to be agreed upon, according to an Estonian defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding that the matter is expected to be raised at the upcoming meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Feb. 14. Proponents of the plan are laying the groundwork to raise it as a policy proposal for NATO’s next major leaders summit, scheduled for July in Vilnius, Lithuania, according to four of the officials familiar with the matter.

    While some NATO leaders have voiced support for making the 2 percent benchmark a floor and not a ceiling for NATO allies, this new initiative would mark the first concrete proposal to raise the floor of defense spending and add pressure to NATO countries that have let their own military and defense industrial spending atrophy for decades since the end of the Cold War.

    “NATO needs strengthening, and since Poland is spending 4 percent of our GDP, we would expect other allies to increase their spending as well,” said Radoslaw Fogiel, chairman of the Polish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

    U.S. defense spending is more than 3 percent of GDP, making the United States one of just nine out of the alliance’s 30 members to reach the NATO defense target in 2022, despite Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The discrepancy has been a long-standing source of frustration between Washington and European capitals.

    The debate over defense spending became a flashpoint between the United States and its allies during the Trump administration, when President Donald Trump repeatedly bashed NATO allies for outsourcing their security from the U.S. military without properly investing in their own defense capabilities. But despite Trump’s harsh rhetoric that at times raised concerns about American commitment to the alliance, the warnings from U.S. officials that NATO spending is not commensurate with growing national security threats date back decades, including then-outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s famous 2011 parting shot to allies in Brussels that the bloc risked “collective military irrelevance” unless countries sharply increased their military budgets.

    The 2 percent benchmark was agreed upon at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014, as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine prompted a reexamination of Europe’s security architecture. At the time, three of the alliance’s members were already spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense.

    The spending pledge made in 2014 was agreed upon for a decade. As its expiration date approaches next year, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has spoken publicly about the need for a more ambitious target. “I expect that we will make a new pledge on defense spending when we meet in Vilnius at the NATO summit in July this year,” he said in an interview with Die Welt last month. “I cannot tell you exactly what allies will agree, but I expect there to be a more ambitious pledge because everyone sees that we need to invest more,” he said.

    In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year, over a dozen members of the alliance pledged to increase their defense spending, with several laggards, including Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy, promising to meet the 2 percent goal, although none of the nations have hit the target so far. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has pledged to spend more than $100 billion to revamp Berlin’s under-armed military but has reportedly lagged on defense purchases and procurement programs to begin revamping the military and defense industrial output.

    Other NATO nations have found it more challenging to move past the 2 percent mark. Despite being a prolific supporter of Ukraine and the home of one of the war-torn country’s largest diaspora communities, Canada’s defense spending has sunk since 2020, topping out at just under 1.5 percent of GDP. Belgium, the home of NATO’s headquarters, plans to get to 1.54 percent—by 2030.

    Defense hawks in Europe are hoping that NATO’s upcoming summit in Vilnius will be a potential turning point. Nearly 10 years after NATO members agreed to meet the 2 percent benchmark within a decade, some of the top defense spenders within the alliance are using the anniversary to try to sustain the momentum on building military muscle.

    But beyond the Baltic states, the paradigm shift is also being driven by some of NATO’s largest members. France, which has been hovering just below NATO’s 2 percent mark for years, is set to boost military spending by more than 7 percent in 2023 and has pledged to spend more than $400 billion to revamp its military over the next six years, boosting spending on nuclear weapons and adding a new aircraft carrier. The British government is in the midst of a defense spending review that is likely to put it well beyond the 2 percent mark for the long term, though London has delayed a planned spending boost that was likely to raise the target to 3 percent of GDP.

    It was not immediately clear if calls for a renewed NATO spending pledge would be accompanied by other military goals. The 2014 Wales pledge came with a commitment from members to invest 20 percent of their budgets on research and development of new weapons. But former officials are worried that some NATO members may not follow through on their promises without a firm new pledge.

    “The bottom line is that the water level is rising,” said Fabrice Pothier, a former NATO director of policy planning who is now CEO of the Rasmussen Global political consultancy. “I think there is still a debate on whether it should be 2.5 or 3 [percent]. The question in Vilnius is, will that be put in black and white or will that be put as more of an aspiration?” Pothier added that a clear target would help send a signal to arms manufacturers that NATO members will keep ramping up their military budgets for the long term, no small matter as Western countries struggle to restock their supplies, especially artillery tubes and shells and tanks.

    “At the end, you need to have a black-and-white number, because if not, the secretary-general and the whole NATO machine cannot exert sharp enough pressure and keep allies’ feet to the fire,” he said. “We are in a brave new world, and in anticipation, the defense industry should scale up.”

    Jim Townsend, who served for eight years as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration, said that the idea of raising the defense spending target beyond 2 percent was not entirely a nonstarter, noting that in the United States, 2 percent has increasingly come to be seen as the floor, not the ceiling, of defense spending commitments. One possibility, Townsend said, would be to include language about a boost in defense spending in the joint communique issued at the Vilnius summit to give governments something to sell to parliaments and publics back home, while couching it in non-binding terms to provide an “escape hatch” for countries that are unable to meet the new proposals.

    Whether allies meet their 2 percent benchmark or not has become a proxy for the political debate of whether that country takes its commitment to NATO and collective defense seriously—though some security experts lament that the fixation on 2 percent clouds more important discussions of how each country is spending its defense budget and whether enough is being invested in research and development for new weapons systems.

    “What I would certainly hope to see from the pledge is the sustainability of the effort,” said Camille Grand, a former NATO assistant secretary-general for defense investment and now a distinguished policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “This is where we keep our edge, rather than simply, let’s have a bushfire of money spent and then discover that it was not spent that wisely: That we don’t have the money to support the new equipment, that we don’t have enough money to train the crews of the thousands of [new] tanks.”

    The plans, which had long been in the works as Baltic nations redoubled their defense spending ahead of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, have crystallized as a political push after a recent meeting of high-level Polish and Baltic officials in Riga. The Baltic countries will also be seeking progress reports on NATO plans to deploy a brigade-level presence to countries in the region, firmed up at the alliance’s summit in Madrid last summer, as well as changes to NATO’s defense planning and spending, as European countries have run through their ammunition stockpiles to help Ukraine, and the military industry hasn’t been moving quickly enough to keep up.

    “It’s clear that, at this moment, 2 percent is not enough,” said Artis Pabriks, who was Latvia’s defense minister and deputy prime minister until December and now serves as director of the Northern Europe Policy Center, a Riga-based think tank. “I think all nations will support this 2.5 percent for everybody, because we are already there. We are the front-line countries and we see the danger, and we know the danger will persist for a decade. We see the problems with industry, we see the problems with supply.”

    “With 2 percent, many European nations cannot manage what they have to manage to make the continent safer and resist the Russians,” he said.


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