America’s European allies are finally spending more on defense, but the Trump administration is raising hell about it because some of the allies want to spend the money on weapons made in their own countries.
The irony is immense. Throughout his presidency, and even before, Trump has been browbeating the NATO allies to boost their defense budgets, even threatening to leave the alliance if they didn’t pony up. Now that they’re doing so in a politically viable way—by investing in their own companies—top U.S. officials are complaining.
It would be funny if it weren’t so damaging. The whole episode bolsters suspicions that the United States is interested more in enriching its own military-industrial complex than in improving the common defense. As a result, trans-Atlantic tensions, which Trump has done much to brew, will likely thicken. The case for higher European defense budgets will lose legitimacy if it comes to be seen as a mere appendage to Trump’s “America First” campaign.
The New York Times reported last week that Michael J. Murphy, a top official in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, “lectured” European Union ambassadors about their attempt to launch a new program that would exclude “third parties”—including the United States—from participating in cooperative military projects unless absolutely necessary.
Murphy was so angry about the issue, the Times reports, that he left no time in the session for discussion after his remarks. A “similar but less aggressive meeting” took place at the Pentagon, where discussion was allowed.
At his meeting with the ambassadors, Murphy accused the EU of “pursuing an industrial policy under the veneer of a security policy.” Two points should be made about this charge. First, it’s overstated. Even with the new policies, the NATO allies will still be buying lots of American weapons and supplies, including several—such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—that were designed as multinational projects.
Second, the charge is risible. Even within the United States, defense policy has always been, to a certain degree, industrial policy. Several years ago, when the U.S. Air Force was developing the F-22 stealth fighter plane, it deliberately spread the contracts and subcontracts to 46 states, giving a solid majority of senators—and a lot of House members—a financial and electoral stake in protecting the program. When Robert Gates, President Obama’s first defense secretary, killed the F-22, Congress allowed it only because the F-35s—which he not only preserved but expanded—had largely the same network of contractors.
The ploy is nothing new. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the U.S. Army spread contracts for the Nike Zeus anti-ballistic missile system to 37 states, for the same reason. Ever since, the military services and their contractors have relied on their beneficiaries in Congress to make the arguments and deliver the votes to save their projects and budgets—sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. It’s part of the game, and for Murphy to harrumph about it bespeaks a degree of ignorance or arrogance fully deserving of the Europeans’ derision and scorn.
In their meetings, Murphy and the Pentagon officials did cite one genuinely substantive concern. It is known as “interoperability”—the fear that, in a war, allied operations might be hampered if U.S. and European forces were using different weapons, supplies, ammunition, and so forth. NATO commanders worried about this issue during the Cold War, when massive garrisons of forces from 16 allied nations trained to stave off an invasion of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces along narrow sectors across the East-West German border. However, the concerns are somewhat overblown. In the years since the Cold War, NATO allies have conducted joint military operations in several theaters—Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya, Iraq, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere. Some of these operations have been hampered by differences in tactics, strategy, or rules of engagement—but not by some incompatibility among the allies’ weapons systems. On the occasions when problems of that sort emerged, they were solved by on-the-spot workarounds.
Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told me in an email, “It’s true that, say, countries flying F-16s or F-35s can cooperate more closely—training together, pooling maintenance, sharing munitions, etc. But,” he went on, “non-U.S. planes (and ships, tanks, etc.) are perfectly interoperable with U.S. equipment and forces. And no one in Europe is arguing that there should be no interoperability with the U.S. We should welcome any effort by the Europeans to increase their defenses.”
Murphy told the EU ambassadors that their plan to build up their own defense industries, even just a little, would “create a new irritant in trans-Atlantic relations.” This is, at best, baffling. The European plan amounts to fairly normal industrial policy; certainly, it’s a step toward the sort of European unity that most presidents have welcomed and that even Trump has said he wants. As usual, Trump’s sharp protest is the only irritant.