In the first presidential debate of the U.S. election season, Governor Romney landed on the word “military” or “defense” in four of his last five sentences. Defense spending may be the one foreign policy difference where Romney believes he can get a toehold against a President who has restored foreign policy dominance to the Democratic party for the first time in decades. It is also the fundamental dimension where Republicans and Democrats disagree vis-à-vis our relationship with Europe.
How to spur Europeans to increase contributions to common military defense? Over the next ten years, Romney wants to spend $2.5 trillion more than Obama – that includes undoing the $487 billion Obama proposes cutting from the military budget. Around the time of last spring’s NATO summit, Mitt Romney wrote in the Chicago Tribune that the President’s “hollowing out” of the American military has discouraged Europeans from contributing more.
It’s important to remember the context in which these two men are allegedly so divided. American military preeminence is a matter of bipartisan consensus. The Romney-Obama foreign policy showdown comes down to questions like, do we need ten or eleven nuclear-powered aircraft carriers? Obama’s budget still includes room for 2,500 new fighter aircraft, and nine new ships a year -- Romney would build 15 a year for the Navy.
This is an ironic role reversal in which the “small government” candidate is urging a massive increase government spending, and it is a revealing exception to Governor Romney’s general aversion to Keynesian economics. Still, it’s hard to believe that the former business consultant sees no place to cut wasteful spending at the Pentagon.
President Obama’s unprecedented personal popularity in Western Europe was expected reap benefits from America’s traditional allies across the Atlantic. Early encouragement came in the form of the Nobel Prize. But as they say in DC, a Nobel Prize and a buck fifty will get you a cup of coffee. This good will hasn’t resulted in additional help in closing Guantanamo from European friends abroad. And Obama was not able to elicit much more military cooperation and support for Afghanistan, either. If you compare the NATO summit of 2012 to the one in December 2009, it’s hard to see much progress. In 2009, Europeans offered a modest increase of forces to accompany the last American surge in Afghanistan. In 2012 they offered some additional funding for training. But in general, the European contribution to NATO spending is down from one-half to one-third in the last ten years.
In truth, the exasperation that Washington has expressed with its European partners who ignored former Secretary Gates’ departing exhortation to spend a realistic budgetary percentage on defense – has now turned to resignation. But as Libyan intervention showed, other models of cost sharing are conceivable. And it’s more credible for us to ask for that contribution if we are tightening our own belt. Cooperation with European partners in Libya gives an example of President Obama’s new deal with his longtime partners. It turns out you get more bees with less honey. The U.S. spent around $896 million dislodging Qaddafi, France spent half that and the U.K. actually spent more than the U.S.: at least 850 million pounds. Compare that to the $900 billion the U.S. spent in Iraq – admittedly a more complex task sought out by the Bush administration. The U.K. spent only roughly $15 billion there from 2003-10.
What matters even more than budget quibbling is the fundamental question of which circumstances justify military action. It’s there that Romney is broadly considered perilous for the transatlantic relationship. His sabre rattling in the direction of Russia, Iran and Palestine reminds many European politicians and publics of the days of the first G.W. Bush term. At first blush, it is hard to imagine enhanced transatlantic cooperation on most foreign policy issues currently on the agenda. Romney would re-set the reset with Russia; he would not have signed START because of limitations on U.S. military planning. Romney says wouldn’t have announced a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. On Climate change, Romney still insists on “the lack of scientific consensus” on the source of CO2 emissions.
In the case of Georgia, Romney’s advisors advocated escalation when they were advising John McCain. It’s hard to imagine they’d act differently now, especially now that they have designated Russia as our number one geopolitical foe. The current peaceful transition of power in Georgia was enabled in part by cool-headed diplomacy. Many European countries prefer a subtler approach with Russia that is not unnecessarily confrontational.
As for the famous Asian pivot – and by extension, the turn away from Europe – it never materialized. If the U.S. is always ready to fight wars on two fronts, President Obama has demonstrated that the U.S. can also maintain allies and trading partners on more than one continent. No one dares ignore the economic rise of Asia. Chancellor Merkel had a recently successful trip to China, and European production as a share of gross world product is expected to continue declining.
The Obama administration has been quite engaged in Europe: Secretary Clinton has visited once a month on average. Obama himself made ten visits to Europe. A recent ARD/DeutschlandTrend poll showed 75% job approval ratings for President Obama, with just 16% disapproving; 86% said they would reelect the President, whereas only 7% would do so for Romney. The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends tell a similar story: the President maintains more than two-thirds approval across Europe, a figure which would be the envy of many European heads of government.
The transatlantic relationship has matured from working with Europe “on” Europe -- free and whole – to a phase in which it is being harnessed for leverage in other pressing areas, from the Arab Spring to Libya, Syria and Iran – putting forth a fairly unified front in spite of high complexity and some competing national interests.
It’s hard to imagine that Romney’s $2.5 trillion spending difference with Obama will inspire Europeans to suddenly invest more in collective defense. Rather, cooperation would likely stall. Does this matter? According to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, American voters are more concerned about the economy by about 50 to 1.