President Obama said Wednesday the U.S. military would expand its profile in the Western-looking Baltic states and promised NATO backing against any possible moves by Moscow in the former republics.
Obama, who was in the Estonian capital Tallinn during a day of talks with Baltic leaders, said the Pentagon planned to seek congressional approval to station additional U.S. warplanes in Estonia as part of wider Cold War-style signals to Russia of Western resolve and unity. NATO members meeting in Wales this week are expected to fine-tune plans for a rapid-reaction force aimed in particular at confronting Russia. . . .
“You lost your independence before. With NATO you will never lose it again,” Obama told a group of mostly students during a speech at a concert hall.
[I]n Tallinn, Estonia, in the sharpest language any U.S. president has used toward Russia since Ronald Reagan upbraided the Evil Empire. One by one, President Obama repudiated the lies Vladimir Putin has told about Ukraine: that the Ukrainians somehow provoked the invasion, that they are Nazis, that their freely elected government is somehow illegal. He rejected Russia’s claim that it has some sphere of influence in Ukraine, some right of veto over Ukrainian constitutional arrangements. And he forcefully assured Estonians — and all NATO’s new allies — that waging war on them meant waging war on the United States. “[T]he defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London,” Obama said. “Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now.”
This is the ultimate commitment, given by the ultimate authority, in the very place where the commitment would be tested — and would have to be honored. There’s no turning back from that. Today, for the first time perhaps, Eastern Europeans have reason to believe it. And Vladimir Putin? His depredations have brought about the very result he claimed most to fear: a reanimated NATO rededicated to the defense of all its members, new and old, West and East, backed by the ultimate commitment of the United States.
Now on the one hand, it’s always a good thing for the president of the United States to offer reassurance to jittery allies and recommit to pledges that have been made by treaty. But will the rest of NATO follow suit?
This is not an idle query. As Gideon Rachman noted a few days ago in an excellent FT column:
[T]he biggest weakness in the global security system is not a lack of resolve in Washington, but the learned helplessness of America’s regional allies. The Nato summit this week in Wales represents a crucial opportunity for America’s most important allies to start doing more to share the burden. If they fail, the inability of the U.S. to police the world alone will become increasingly apparent, and the various global security crises will intensify.
The pattern of NATO spending reflects Europe’s increasing reliance on the U.S. At the height of the Cold War, America accounted for roughly half the military spending of the alliance, with the rest of NATO accounting for the other 50 percent.
Now, however, the U.S. accounts for some 75 percent of NATO spending. Last year, of the 28 NATO members, only the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia met the alliance’s target of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Even the U.K. may soon slip below 2 percent, with the British army on course to shrink to about 80,000, its smallest size since just after the Napoleonic wars.
Unfortunately, as Politico’s Philip Ewing observes, the likelihood of the United States’ NATO allies stepping up to the plate on greater defense commitments seems remote:
Although this week’s summit in Wales appears likely to yield a “pledge” in support of increased spending in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, no one expects a serious effort from members other than those most directly threatened, including Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
“They’re going to get something, but it’s not going to be a sea change,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who now heads the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University. Germany, he observed, already has announced it’s cutting its defense budget.
The outlook for France doesn’t seem much better. In fact, France has twisted itself in knots trying to maintain a deal to sell Moscow two amphibious warships even as it, Europe and the U.S. have also sanctioned Russia over its aggression in Ukraine.
To be fair, it’s not easy for countries to start spending more on defense immediately when the security environment has seemed so tame for so long. Furthermore, Germany has created a climate of fiscal austerity that makes greater defense spending politically unpalatable. If a bigger European military requires further cuts in social services to keep budgets balanced, then it ain’t gonna happen.
For much of Obama’s second term, allies have been grousing about his commitment to preserving global security. But if you look at his pledges with respect to NATO, Japan, and degrading and destroying the Islamic State, he actually has made those vows. So now the question is whether the allies demanding American leadership will act like responsible supporters — or just grouse some more.
Will the rest of NATO follow through? That’s my question.