It happened today - December 12, 2015

On December 12 1987 United States Secretary of State George Shultz called on America’s European allies to increase defence spending… increase defence spending… increase defence spending. Sorry, is there an echo in here?

Must be. The United States has had plenty of disagreements over the years with its allies in Europe, and North America, over whether particular missions made sense. But a constant refrain throughout all these debates, regardless of who sent troops where, was that if action was to be undertaken the United States would be doing most of the heavy lifting. And the allies have responded.

Just not in a good way. Despite repeatedly promising to spend 2% of their GDP on defence most are well under that number and heading south, including Canada.

In the early 1990s, for instance, Britain really did stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S., sort of, spending about 3.6% of GDP on its military. Today it’s at 2.4% and sliding. France has gone from 3.3 to 1.9. Italy from 2.0 to 1.2. And so on. Meanwhile the United States has gone from 4.5% to 4.4.

It is true, of course, that the United States has a larger population and is richer than its European allies. Partly because it has a more robust attitude toward the measures actually needed to promote national security, prosperity and so on. But the fact that its overall spending is understandably larger is no excuse for the gap as a share of GDP.

The basic fact is that Europeans no longer believe in defending themselves. Whether they do not believe it is worthwhile, do not believe it is possible or do not believe it is necessary because Uncle Sam will do it anyway is not immediately relevant.

The simple fact is that they are not doing it. They are free riding, sometimes cheering on American intervention and sometimes hissing at it but always leaving it to the United States to make it happen if it’s going to. Oh, as for Canada, we were around 1.8% in the early 1990s and today stand, or rather slouch insouciantly, at 1%.

George Shultz might not be surprised. But he would be bothered, and he’d be right to be. Then and now.

It happened todayJohn Robson