Europe: 90-Pound Weakling

Thomas Bray uses his Sunday column to explain, “How Europe became a 90-pound weakling.”

If there is a consistent thread to John Kerry̢۪s constantly shifting Iraq policy, it̢۪s that George W. Bush didn̢۪t do enough to create a real coalition to do the fighting. If elected, Kerry pledges to rectify that oversight. But that involves several large assumptions, beginning with the question of whether the foremost absentees from the Iraq conflict, France and Germany, would report for duty. Second, what could these two countries bring to the party even if they were so inclined? The answer: Not a lot.

The harsh fact is that the European military establishment, never large to begin with, is a 90-pound weakling. The United States, despite years of cutbacks beginning in the wake of the Cold War, plunked down nearly $400 billion last year to support its military. That̢۪s about 3.7 percent of gross domestic product, only about half the amount spent at the height of the Cold War. The European Union, by contrast, spends less than 2.0 percent of its GDP on the military. France spent a grand total of about $40 billion in 2002, according to North Atlantic Treaty Organization figures. Germany spent about $37 billion. The United Kingdom, though Prime Minister Tony Blair has proved to be a stalwart friend, came up with about $37 billion. Canada is off the charts at a mere $10 billion, and shrinking fast. In Bosnia, where the French and Germans did collaborate in the sort of coalition Kerry favors, the United States had to deliver an embarrassing 85 percent of the missile strikes because of the primitive condition of the European air forces.

Why is Europe so weak? The trend began well before the end of the Cold War. Increasingly, Europe opted for the free-rider approach, happy to let American taxpayers shoulder the major share of the burden. But Europe’s continuing power-slide strongly suggests there may be an even more fundamental reason for its weakness: the debilitating effect of the vast European welfare state. Europeans like to look down their noses at what they see as America’s “cowboy capitalism.†They prefer a system with generous economic and health benefits. And once somebody has a job, employers are all but forbidden to fire them or lay them off. But the costs are substantial. Employers are understandably reluctant to hire new workers. And the average tax burden in Europe is about 40 percent, compared with 30 percent (federal and state) in the United States. Thus, while America was generating tens of millions of jobs in the 1980s and ‘90s, Europe was virtually stagnant.

As I’ve noted before, the U.S. spends more on defense than the entire rest of the world combined. It’s debatable whether that’s necessary. But the irony is that we’ve done it, allowed Western Europe to freeride under our military umbrella, and are still outperforming them economically.

Having the Brits on board is quite helpful militarily, because they still maintain a modern force that synchs up quite well with ours. The Germans and French are important almost entirely for political symbolism; the additional firepower they add is, frankly, negligible. Aside from peacekeeping duties, no other European military much matters except from a public relations standpoint.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mike says:

    Considering the history of the first half of the 20th century, it may be a good thing that these guys don’t have any power projection capability.