By Xu Haiyun
Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto recently said the country cannot meet the target of increasing military expenditure to 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) by 2024 as required by NATO, which would be challenging to accomplish even by 2028. It is estimated by NATO that Italy's military expenses in 2023 will be equivalent to 1.46% of their national GDP, and the figure will fall to 1.38% and 1.26%, respectively, in 2024 and 2025.
The case of Italy is common within NATO. In 2022, only six countries including the US, the UK and Poland reached the specified standards. As per the original plan of NATO, at least 19 member states are expected to meet the set targets by 2024. It now appears that such a goal is unrealistic. Differences over the military expenditure issue between the US and Europe are possibly to grow further.
The deficiency of military spending within European allies is not a new concern, but has existed since the inception of NATO. The center-periphery structure formed during the Cold War within NATO remains prevalent today. Within the structure, the US which occupies the center not only dominates all decisions and operations of the alliance, but also bears 60% to 70% of the military spending, while European countries are holding a marginalized and subordinated position. After the end of the Cold War, this pattern has been adjusted somewhat but not fundamentally changed. During the Trump administration, the US strongly urged its European allies to lift the military expenditure even to extent of threatening to withdraw from NATO. Some European countries take it that such a structure may involve some political trade-offs for them but could ensure their economic and security interests by hopping on the bandwagon of the US. With this dependent mindset, the European countries would rather put up with the constant censure of the US than substantially increasing military expenditure by employing delaying or ambiguous tactics.
Since the end of the Cold War, as the overall international security situation has been moving toward moderation, and peace and development have become the general trend of the Times, European countries lack the internal motivation to increase military expenditure, trim staff, and aging equipment being the norm in many militaries among them. In recent years, most European countries have been confronted with political polarization, economic growth fatigue, unsustainable welfare, increasing refugees and illegal immigrants, continuing social disintegration and antagonism, and other diverse issues, thus being constrained from allocating further financial resources to the military field. Although the Russia-Ukraine conflict provided some impetus in this respect, most NATO member states, with a few exceptions, such as Poland and the three Baltic states, have inadequate enthusiasm for increasing military spending. Amid the prolonged unresolved conflict between Russia and Ukraine, many of them exhibit a rising sense of weariness in increasing military expenses and aid to Ukraine.
Doubts about the US are also a major reason for certain European countries' resistance to boost military expenditure. There have been continuous clashes within the alliance between the US and Europe in recent years. From the geopolitical crises incurred by NATO's eastward expansion, to the sanctions and oppressions imposed on European companies, and to the indiscriminate surveillance on multiple European leaders, European countries, having recognized the detrimental impacts on their own interests, are increasingly alienated from the US. Following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the US even took the opportunity to sell oil and gas to profit from soaring energy prices in Europe. All these moves of the US have sparked discontent among European countries.
In addition, there are also major contradictions between the military construction of NATO and European countries' independent defense. The modern world has long moved beyond the Cold War era. However, NATO retains a zero-sum gaming and confrontational mentality, which a product of the Cold War, contrary to the interests of many European countries. Against the backdrop of dramatic changes in the international landscape and the protracted Ukraine crisis in recent years, some European politicians are reflecting on the increasing erosion in their sovereignty, and the voice of advocating European defense independence is becoming more apparent. Many European countries represented by France hope to invest more military and financial resources into the independent defense construction of the continent, which will inevitably hinder the expansion of military investment within NATO.
The gaming over military investment between the US and its European allies highlights the problems around worldview and development direction within NATO to a certain extent. NATO should change the beggar-thy-neighbor security strategy, abandon the unilateral, egoistic, and risky hegemonic policies, and fundamentally improve the security environment in Europe; otherwise it will have to raise the military expenses continuously. This will lead to persistence and even escalation of the disputes over NATO's military expenditure between the US and Europe.
(The author is from the School of History, Renmin University of China)