A Turning Point for Military Spending

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NATO countries have been promising to spend more money on defense for many years.

In 2006, the defense ministers of NATO adopted a vague guideline suggesting that every NATO country spend 2 percent of its annual economic output on the military. At the time, most NATO members spent far less — and little changed after the 2006 announcement.

In 2014, worried by Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, NATO’s heads of state formalized the benchmark and urged countries to move toward it within the next decade. Still, most countries have failed to meet it:

Much of Western Europe has been especially reluctant to do so, to the frustration of leaders in the U.S. and Eastern Europe. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama complained about the gap during their presidencies, and Donald Trump castigated other countries about it. Wealthy countries like Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands — as well as Japan — seemed to be free riders, able to spend more on their own social safety nets while the U.S. protected them.

But now the situation really does seem to be changing.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year has led to a new willingness for countries to pay for their own defense. “It’s clearly a turning point for Europe in terms of the allocation of spending between military needs and social spending,” said Patricia Cohen, a Times economics correspondent based in London. Liz Alderman, a correspondent based in Paris, put it this way: “European leaders have decided that the threat is here to stay.”

Germany appears likely to meet the 2 percent threshold next year. In France, which was already close to the target, President Emmanuel Macron has promised to lift military spending by more than a third this decade. Other countries are also spending more.

“Incomplete is the grade, but the direction of travel is positive,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told me on Friday, before leaving for this week’s NATO meeting in Lithuania. At the meeting, American officials plan to push other countries not to stop at 2 percent. “Two percent should not be seen as a ceiling to hit, but really a floor that should be built upon,” Sullivan said.

The arguments for more military spending involve both fairness and democracy.

The fairness point is the same one that Bush, Obama and Trump have made: At a time when many Americans are frustrated with slow-growing living standards and the U.S. has a $32 trillion federal debt, why should Western Europe effectively bill Washington for protection? And why should richer NATO countries like Germany be less willing to pay for defense than Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Greece and Poland (all of which have hit the 2 percent target)?

The democracy point is related to a major theme of Biden’s foreign policy. Global affairs are increasingly defined by a contest between autocracy and democracy, Biden has said. On one side are Russia and China. On the other are the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia and much of Europe. Democracy will be more likely to prevail if countries share the burdens of military spending.

Japan’s leaders seem to agree with this idea. Historically, Japan spent only about 1 percent of its economic output on the military — a legacy of its post-World War II desire to avoid belligerence, as was also the case for Germany. But starting in 2012, Shinzo Abe, then the prime minister, began pushing for a new approach, one that he argued was more fitting for modern realities.

Initially, the Japanese public was skeptical. In 2015, people took to the streets to protest a law that allowed Japanese troops to participate in some combat missions, notes Motoko Rich, The Times’s Tokyo bureau chief.

Today, people seem more supportive. Japan’s current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, plans to raise defense spending gradually to 2 percent of economic output, and the public reaction has been “remarkably sanguine,” Motoko says. The new aggressiveness of China and nuclear tests by North Korea help explain the shift.

There are trade-offs, of course. The additional money that countries spend on defense is money they cannot spend on roads, child care, cancer research, refugee resettlement, public parks or clean energy, my colleague Patricia points out. One reason Macron has insisted on raising France’s retirement age despite widespread protests, analysts believe, is a need to leave more money for the military.

But the situation over the past few decades feels unsustainable. Some of the world’s richest countries were able to spend so much on social programs partly because another country — the U.S. — was paying for their defense. Those other countries, sensing a more threatening world, are now once again promising to pull their weight. They still need to demonstrate that they’ll follow through this time.

Related: Right-wing Republicans want to use the annual defense bill to pick abortion fights and combat “wokeness” in the military.

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