Bruce Bartlett offers this chart (via Andrew) demonstrating that the United States is the only NATO country basically to have maintained it's Cold War defence spending. Indeed, the US accounts for roughly 43% of global defence spending. Bartlett is not the only conservative who thinks domestic fiscal concerns - to say nothing of foreign policy matters - mean this kind of spending is unsustainable in the longer-term.
No wonder Bob Gates lambasted european allies last week for their failure to spend more on defence (and especially on equipment). It's a little unfortunate that Washington has consistently opposed the development of any independent european defence capability (though the wisdom and feasibility of any such enterprise might be questioned and Washington's objections have not always been unreasonable). Nevertheless, such are the wages of empire and hegemony. Europe has benefited greatly from the American defence umbrella but let's not pretend this was not also in American interests or, as is too often claimed, some kind of selfless sacrifice. On the contrary; if also often mercifully not.
I doubt returning to Cold War levels of defence expenditure is possible in any political sense. That's one feature of the European Union's success, not failure. This is true whatever one may think of its shortcomings in other areas. War in western europe really is unthinkable and that's something our generation is only the first or second in history to enjoy.
Will Inboden understands something of this (and of the appalling cost of the First World War, still the most significant, consequential event since Napoleon) and he's right that NATO played its part in creating the peace. He concludes:
But who threatens europe? Not the Russians or at least not in any meaningful military way. The Iranian threat, meanwhile, is not something that can be countered by more tanks. And the Chinese are more preoccupied with internal dissent at home and "soft power" abroad than with rampaging across the globe in any military sense. So why should Portugal or Belgium double their defence spending? Because they've been told to and should do as they're told?“
While American policy-makers should be mindful of how this historical sensibility influences European choices, this is not to excuse those choices. In Europe's case, the fact that history helps shape a culture does not mean that history should determine a culture. As a matter of policy, Secretary Gates' sharp critique is correct, both in its substance and tone. European nations do need to increase their defense budgets and their political will to use force for alliance missions, whether in Afghanistan or Libya or future conflicts. Just as Europe has largely been able to escape its past of catastrophically destructive continent-wide wars, Europe also needs to escape its more recent past of anemic commitments to security.
And rather than increasing defence budgets and "political will to use force for alliance missions" it might be wiser still to consider the usefulness or desirability of those conflicts in the first place. Afghanistan has been a dreadful mess for years and the Libyan intervention a botched mission of dubious worth from the beginning. Complaining that these missions lack funds is hardly the worst thing about them.
What may be said is that european defence, including Britain's, now lacks what one might term a "rainy day fund" capable of responding to unforeseen circumstances and crises that might, no matter how unlikely they seem today, arise in the future. That's an important and serious problem but solving it requires a sensible appraisal of what those crises might possibly, conceivably, super-hypothetically be and targetting resources and planning to cope with them rather than setting an arbitrary level of defence spending that's deemed appropriate regardless of need, circumstance or sense.
In the end, the best way to increase european defence spending may be to cut American defence spending by half. But that's not something that's likely to be popular or possible in Washington. Which in turn is a reminder that regular grumbling about european defence budgets, whether you think the Pentagon's view correct or not, is a long, long way down the list of things Washington considers important. The trade-offs necessary to make europe spend more aren't worth it or invite many more and much greater problems than the one such measures would be desiged to solve.