Despite the considerable progress I have made with my Spanish since arriving in Seville nine weeks ago, it is still obvious to all but the most obtuse Spaniards that I am an American. If my clothes and gait do not give my identity away from afar, my accent certainly does upon my first “hola.” As a result, it is not uncommon for the Spaniards I meet when out and about to ask me questions about what life is like in America and to oftentimes criticize American politics and foreign policy.
As one of my professors here constantly reminds us, arguing is the favorite sport of Spaniards, even more so than soccer. This is readily evident when the topic of American foreign policy surfaces. Generally speaking, Spaniards disagree with our positions overseas. In their eyes we are too militant, uncompromising, and leave no place for nuance in our manichaeistic world view.
Thanks to Obama’s election and the end of the war in Iraq, the vitriol hasn’t been as bad as when I visited Nora in France in 2008, but I have still been exposed to a significant amount of complaining about how America conducts itself abroad. In particular, Spaniards take offense with our frequent reliance on military force, our fondness for telling other countries how to manage their affairs, and our insistence on special treatment in countless areas of international law and economics. In the past, when confronted by complaints such as these I would normally seek to defend our policies, even if I had certain qualms about them myself. I enjoy a good argument and am oftentimes willing to take sides I don’t completely agree with simply for the sake of a good debate. However, lately I have been conducting an experiment with my response. Instead of trying to defend our foreign policy on the merits, I have simply retorted to dissatisfied Spaniards something along the lines of, “So what? We can do what we want. That’s the benefit of investing in power.” As you can imagine, this ruffles many feathers. The thing is, this is exactly what I want.
You see, the simple fact is that Europe is relatively powerless. Even the largest European states such as Germany and Great Britain lack the military and economic power to make substantial impacts abroad. Take the recent intervention by France in Mali to thwart the expansion of islamist rebels. This was a unilateral decision taken by Paris and it was willing to pay the bill, both in troops and treasure, to see it done. The problem is, France lacked (and still does) the aerial refueling, airlifting, and intelligence assets to complete the mission on its own; it had to ask the Pentagon to supply the needed airframes. A similar story played out during the intervention in Libya in 2011. The result has been the painful confirmation of what many around the world already suspected: without the United States, Europe is a paper tiger.
This is a hugely important development. Europe has been a military and economic center of power for hundreds of years and to this day prides itself on its history as the center of world affairs and the developer of modern Western society. However, this sense of self-importance has not encountered the new reality surrounding Europe’s current lack of power. In essence, there is a mismatch between Europe’s desires and its abilities; Europeans today are stuck opining on issues they have no ability to impact. Most troubling, it’s unclear if European leaders realize this mismatch even exists.
How did we reach this point? After all, it wasn’t that long ago that a country like France could manage the deployment of 5,000 troops to Africa on its own. The reality is that Europe’s weakness today is the direct result of decades of underinvestment in its ability to project power. Since the end of World War II, Europe has been a free-rider on the back of high U.S. defense spending. Given the disparity in economic vitality between the United States and Europe, this disparity could be expected and was tolerated as the cost of keeping the West united against communism. However, following the end of the Cold War this disparity increased dramatically. While every NATO member cut back on defense spending after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe gradually cut spending to the point where there wasn’t enough money to develop or maintain core capabilities, such as strategic airlift and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms. Additionally, the trend of lower and lower defense spending as a percentage of GDP continued following the start of the War on Terror. While the U.S. ramped up spending to match its capabilities with its ambitions, only one European country, the United Kingdom, followed suit. The rest continued to spend fewer resources and became more and more reliant on the United States. The result was that by 2010, only four countries spent 2% or more of their GDP on defense as mandated by the NATO treaty. The decline of European military spending can be seen in the following tables and graph.
Now I want to point out I am not gloating about Europe’s demise as a center of power. As America’s premier ally and cultural compatriot, the United States has a strong interest in seeing a strong Europe and has in fact been quite vocal about its desire to see the continent spend more on defense. However, the current levels of spending reflect Europe’s priorities. To paraphrase Joe Biden’s very quotable father, you can talk all day long about what you value, but show me your checkbook and I’ll show you what you really value. This is the reality of Europe today. Its budget speaks volumes about its priorities, which is fine as long as European leaders are willing to accept the consequences. And it’s important to note that no amount of EU cooperation will make up for the deficiencies in spending. The EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy is riddled with exceptions and still requires a unanimous decision from the member states to take collective action. (I will write more about the failures of the EU in regard to security policy in another post soon).
So, to all the Spaniards out there who I have offended with my response, I ask you to look at the way the world works and whether Europe is investing enough to be an actual player whose voice has the power behind it to get what it wants. You may not like the way the U.S. acts abroad, but given your inability to provide a competitive alternative, your options are limited, more or less, to complaining.
Source for defense spending data: