Are European Countries Really ‘Free Riders’?

Obama’s recent comments on the trans-Atlantic alliance neglect what it has achieved recently—and what it still needs to do.

French President Francois Hollande addresses a joint news conference with President Barack Obama. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

The idea that Europeans are “free riders,” enjoying the benefits of an  international order safeguarded by the United States without contributing much to it, is well-worn in Washington. In that sense, President Obama did not break with the “Washington playbook” he otherwise derides when he complained to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg about those who do not pay their “fair share” in global affairs. Obama went on to describe what he called an “anti-free rider campaign” in which, among other things, he pushed his European allies to lead the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011—in his words “in order to prevent the Europeans and the Arab states from holding our coats while we did all the fighting.”

The timing of Obama’s criticism was surprising from a European standpoint, considering the significant foreign-policy achievements United States and its European allies have recently brought about together. In fact, Obama has arguably relied more on allies than other recent U.S. presidents in pursuing his foreign-policy objectives. But his “anti free-rider campaign” is also a strange priority at a time when both sides of the Atlantic are confronted with common and daunting challenges, including international terrorism—once again demonstrated by Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels—as well as increasing populism and nationalism in domestic politics.

The supposed European free-rider problem was also a complaint of two recent former U.S. defense secretaries. Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under both Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush, warned in 2011 of an impending trans-Atlantic divide “between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burden of commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don’t want to share the risks and costs.” Likewise, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta later that year underlined the need for increased defense spending in Europe lest lack of investment “hollow out this [NATO] alliance.” These criticisms were and remain fair, considering that the European defense budgets, and therefore European contributions to NATO defense spending, have decreased since the end of the Cold War.

But Obama’s claims today do not account for recent trends. For the first time in several years, defense-spending cuts have all but stopped in European countries, with few exceptions. This seems largely due to a significantly changed security environment on the continent—specifically the apparent return of great-power competition with Russia to the east, and the challenge of a power vacuum fueling instability, terrorism, and migrations from the south. Although it is very unlikely that all European NATO countries will soon be spending as much as 2 percent of their GDP on defense, as required by NATO, the main European powers are at the threshold (like the United Kingdom and Poland), closely approaching it (France), or taking steps to increase resources allocated to defense (Germany).

Obama claims that U.S. allies have had a habit “for the last several decades” of pushing the United States to act and then being unwilling to contribute themselves. But an examination of U.S. military campaigns since the end of the Cold War shows how infrequently Europeans have pushed the United States to take military action—in fact, more often they have contributed militarily to U.S. efforts, even in cases when their interests were not directly at stake.

Europeans did not push America into Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991, but supported and participated in the operation with tens of thousands of troops. With their interests directly on the line, Europeans were ambivalent about U.S.-led NATO interventions in the Balkans in 1995 and 1999, but there too they participated after diplomatic options had been exhausted, and then contributed greatly to the stabilization effort in the former Yugoslavia. After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, European leaders unanimously supported the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan—a country where they arguably had few direct interests. Thousands of European troops were part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission established in the country in 2001, though they certainly did not push America to invade. Likewise, it is an understatement to say that Europeans did not push the United States to invade Iraq in 2003. Although some European countries, like the United Kingdom and Spain, joined the U.S.-led coalition, others, like France and Germany, did not—and did not regret it. But European divisions over supporting a U.S. decision to use force have been the exception, not the norm.

If anything, it’s the Americans that have tended to push the Europeans to back military interventions. It’s true that recent years have seen a kind of reversal of this trend. Officials in France and the United Kingdom—along with many officials within the Obama administration—pushed for and convinced the United States to participate in a military intervention in Libya in 2011, about which Obama was notoriously skeptical. Governments in Paris and London might have struggled to conduct the operation without U.S. participation, but it is hard to argue that they did not put “skin in the game” from the earliest stage of the air campaign. Obama’s claim that the U.S. “wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the intervention neglects to mention that French jets engaged in a mission to protect Benghazi before Libyan air defenses were taken out.

A recent New York Times investigation demonstrated that the failure to build stability and ensure security in Libya after the intervention resulted from many factors. Obama tells Goldberg that British Prime Minister David Cameron got “distracted by a range of other things,” and that the Europeans more generally were insufficiently “invested in the follow-up.” But while the same could be said about the other countries involved, these were only a few factors contributing to Libya’s current chaos. The new Libyan government’s reluctance to welcome foreign involvement in the post-conflict stabilization was another significant one. And even despite these failures, the action to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya still arguably produced a better outcome than has Western inaction in Syria since 2011, or unjustified action in Iraq in 2003.

Likewise, it is true that France and Britain—before the U.K. parliament refused to authorize the use of force—pushed for a military response after Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against Syrians in August 2013. French and British leaders did so based on the belief that air strikes could alter the course of a war that already looked like it could be highly destabilizing for Europe. But they also supported strikes because the United States itself had signaled its willingness to respond to Syria’s violation of the norm against use of chemical weapons.

And the ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State wasn’t forced on the United States by its European allies, either, though most of those allies support it and have a deep interest in seeing the terrorist organization defeated. Few have actually participated, however, and here there is no doubt that the Europeans can and should make a bigger contribution. But it is worth noting that, for a brief period last year, a French aircraft carrier took command of the task force carrying out airstrikes against ISIS. (America’s aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf was out for maintenance, leaving the U.S. without its own aircraft carrier in the region for the first time in nearly a decade.)

To be fair, the Syria crisis does illustrate a problematic trend in trans-Atlantic alliance. There are cases in which European nations have been reluctant to engage in military operations without American participation, even in cases when Europe’s interests were more directly involved than those of the United States. Syria, which has helped produce the worst refugee crisis Europe has seen since World War II, and tragic terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, demonstrates the problem: The United States declined to intervene until two years ago, and Europeans did not step in to compensate for U.S. restraint.

Still, not everything is necessarily U.S.-led in Western military affairs. For instance, the French intervention in Mali in 2013 relied mainly on French military assets, with the United States providing some support. Likewise, French interventions in elsewhere in the Sahel, and in the Central African Republic, demonstrate the same willingness by a key European ally of the United States to bear security responsibilities in areas where U.S. interests are not heavily implicated. This model is one that Washington should encourage and praise, even if it contradicts the trope of European free-riding.

Beyond the sphere of military affairs, the significant diplomatic achievements that Europeans and Americans have brought about together in the past year alone also refute the cliché of the European free-rider. The Iran deal struck in July 2015 was the product of diplomatic heavy lifting on the part of the United States as well as the European Union. Washington pushed Europeans to put harsh sanctions on Iran, but the United States itself had little leverage on the Iranian economy, having had virtually no trade with the country since 1979. In many ways, it was the European choice to back sanctions that made them so effective—and it was the Europeans who bore many of the costs. Likewise, the sanctions on Russia that helped Germany and France broker an imperfect ceasefire in Ukraine in 2015 are economically more painful for Europeans than for U.S. companies. The Obama administration has, de facto, relied on its European allies to handle the crisis created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Finally, the United Nations climate-change negotiations are another good example of a tangible trans-Atlantic achievement. Europeans have talked about and taken action to tackle climate change for many years, and are likely gratified that the United States under Obama has finally joined their efforts. Obama’s outreach to emerging powers made a key contribution to rallying support for the compromise achieved at the climate-change conference in Paris last December. But the United States did not negotiate the deal by itself.

Goldberg’s piece is disturbing because it reflects a vision of the trans-Atlantic partnership at odds with what that partnership, despite its struggles, has managed to produce and still needs to achieve. Europeans are indeed taking a share of the burden and putting skin in the military and diplomatic game, though nobody can deny that they benefit from and welcome U.S. leadership. But at a time when Europe and the United States need to be focusing on common threats, and a worrying rise of nationalism and populism are making the challenges more complicated for both, keeping score and apportioning blame among allies certainly doesn’t make a strong contribution to the alliance.