President Trump flew to Brussels with a chip on his shoulder about American versus European defense spending—“NATO countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS. Very Unfair!” he griped in a particularly juvenile tweet—and he’s kept up the grousing since his arrival.
On a broad level, Trump has a point, and he’s hardly alone in making it; every American president in the last 40 years has pushed the European allies to boost their military budgets. But on his specifics, Trump is wrong, and dangerously so: He displays no understanding of how NATO works, no appreciation for the inherent value of the alliance, and—when it comes to his most solid complaint, the failure of most members to spend 2 percent of their GNP on defense—no awareness of what that target really means.
Trump seems to think that the members of NATO are like the tenants in one of his apartment buildings. They owe a certain amount in rent; they haven’t been paying the full amount; he’s been filling the gap; so now they need to pay him back—or else. I am not exaggerating. On Tuesday, en route to the summit, Trump tweeted:
Many countries in NATO, which we are expected to defend, are not only short of their current commitment of 2% (which is low), but are also delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the U.S.?
Every aspect of this outburst is based on a false premise. First, it is not the case that “we are expected to defend” NATO members; rather, NATO is an alliance of mutual defense; in fact, the only time in its 69-year-old history that a member invoked the treaty occurred in September 2001, when the Europeans and Canada came to our defense after al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. (Hundreds of these countries’ soldiers have since died in Afghanistan fulfilling that pledge.)
Second, at the NATO summit of 2014, each member declared that it would try to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense by 2024. This was a goal, not a “commitment”; and it was to be fulfilled (if possible) over a period of 10 years, not enforced now. Even if this were a binding contract (which it is not), no one—not even the most sluggish spender—could be deemed “delinquent,” much less “delinquent for many years.”
Third, it is absurd to demand that countries falling short of 2 percent should “reimburse the U.S.” This is not how NATO or any military alliance works. NATO is not a common asset, like an apartment co-op, into which the members pay a proportional share. Rather, each member’s democratically elected government decides how much to spend on defense—and how to spend it. NATO’s executive leadership can set goals and prod, but, as is proper under an alliance of democracies, it can’t insist on them. (NATO as a whole does have a small fund for shared, mainly administrative expenses and, it’s worth noting, all members fully pay what they owe for that.)
Fourth, like the other members, the United States too decides how much to spend on its own defense—and how much of that sum should go to the defense of Europe. This sum is based on U.S. security requirements, as mediated by political and bureaucratic interests. It is not at all based on what NATO wants us to do—or on any calculation of how much it takes to fill shortfalls in European spending. In other words, if Germany and other countries haven’t been spending as much on defense as they’ve promised, we haven’t been paying their share, nor do they owe us—or any other country—reimbursement.
It is true, only six of NATO’s 28 countries are currently spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense: the United States, Greece, Estonia, Great Britain, Romania, and Poland. But this doesn’t mean much when it comes to those countries’ contributions to the defense of the alliance.
For instance, Greece spends 2.3 percent of its GNP on defense. By that measure, it ranks second only to the United States (which spends 4.3 percent). However, the Greek military budget amounts to just $4.9 billion. Germany, the main target of Trump’s bluster, spends only 1.2 percent of its GNP on defense—but this results in a military budget of $46.3 billion, 10 times as large as that of Greece. Which country is doing more for continental defense?
By the way, parsed closely, the United States doesn’t meet the 2 percent target either. Since we are a global power, much of our defense budget is spent on ships, planes, weapons and troops in Asia, the Middle East, and other parts of the globe. It’s hard to be precise about these things, but certainly less than half the total goes toward the defense of Europe—which means the U.S. spends probably a bit less than 2 percent of its GDP on NATO.
Of course, this too is an absurd statement. The United States is the leader of NATO; it is the only member with the intelligence and logistical assets to unify the alliance as a fighting force; by the treaty’s charter, the NATO commander must be an American four-star general.
In other words, 2 percent is a political goal with very little military meaning. It reflects nothing, for instance, about how each country allocates its defense budget (toward weapons, personnel, research and development, graft, or what). The goal was meant to serve as a token of effort, the premise being that if a country can’t bring itself to spend even that much on the military, its leaders or electorate aren’t very serious about defense.
But that may not be a fair premise. If Germany boosted its defense budget to 2 percent of its GDP, it would amount to $75 billion—a sum that would alarm some European allies (and many German citizens), who still have memories and concerns about German militarism. (The old joke about NATO is that it was designed to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.)
When it comes to meaningful objectives, NATO has in fact made substantial progress in the past few years. It has strengthened the defense of the small Baltic countries, which are particularly vulnerable to incursions and threats from their neighbor, Russia. It is speedily implementing a new plan called 30-30-30, which requires NATO to have 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons, and 30 warships ready to deploy within 30 days of being put on alert.
Finally, just in terms of military spending, all but five NATO members are spending more money—and a higher percentage of GNP—on defense than they were in 2014, when they endorsed the 2 percent pledge. This is due mainly to stepped-up threats in the interim from Russia, but Trump could claim that his own threats spurred them to open their wallets wider.
In other words, if he were so inclined, Trump could use this year’s summit as an occasion for celebration. But as he has made clear all along, from his 2016 campaign to every phase of his first 18 months as president, Trump comes to bury NATO, not to praise it. The grumbling about budget targets—and his portrait of the allies as loafers and cheaters who exploit our naïve generosity—is simply an excuse to heighten resentment among his “base” toward alliances in general, especially traditional democratic alliances. In the summit’s opening session, Trump proposed raising the spending target from 2 percent of GDP to 4 percent—which, even he must know, is absurd and unnecessary. (In the 1970s, when armored garrisons of NATO and Warsaw Pact troops faced off across the East–West Germany border, President Carter pushed the allies to devote just 3 percent of their GDP to defense—and had trouble selling that.)
Why he is doing this is not entirely clear. Is it the prelude to a shift toward Russia; or toward one-on-one, strictly transactional relationships with other countries (especially autocracies, with which he feels more comfortable); or toward some instinctual mix of unilateralism and isolationism?
There is a legitimate debate to be had over NATO’s purpose in the post–Cold War era. But there’s no debate about the merits of having foreign allies who share our values and our interests—especially at a time when the European Union faces other pressures, some of them from a Russia waxing in imperial nostalgia. And before Trump starts removing the 35,000 U.S. troops in Germany, as he’s asked the Pentagon to consider, he should be told that those troops and their facilities don’t just defend and help unify Europe; they also serve as transit points for U.S. military operations worldwide, as medical centers for troops injured in those operations, and as intelligence centers for campaigns against terrorism, drug smuggling, loose nukes, and other concerns. (One base in Stuttgart is also the headquarters for U.S. Africa Command.)
Through his reckless tirades and disjointed demands, Trump is on the verge of destroying this infrastructure. He has already forfeited much of the trust and respect required for its sustenance. The question that many of the allies are pondering is this: Can they afford to wait out the passing of this peculiar era—or should they make accommodations and deals with others elsewhere? They are waiting to see what Trump does at his meeting next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s no exaggeration to say that the fate of the West, as we’ve come to know it, may be at stake.
If you think Slate’s election coverage matters…
Support our work: become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus