Analysis & Opinions - Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies

Is Trump Right to Demand that NATO Partners Pay More?

| Sep. 09, 2018

BESA Center Online Debate No. 14


Transatlantic relations have suffered since the advent of Donald Trump’s presidency. While collaboration and mutual understanding were taken for granted on a plethora of issues of joint interest during the administration of Barack Obama, Trump approaches Europe with undisguised skepticism. Although he has softened his rhetoric since his 2016 campaign, the US and the EU have not yet worked through their mutual antagonism. One significant issue on the agenda is NATO defense expenditure per member state. BESA joins the debate by posing the question: Is Trump right to push NATO partners to pay more for their participation in NATO?

Steven E. Miller responds.

For almost the entire history of NATO, it has been normal for the US to urge its European allies to spend more on defense. This burden-sharing discussion has been a regular item on the NATO agenda for decades and has sometimes produced intense disagreement.  What Trump is doing is nothing new and is arguably an appropriate reaction to Russia’s aggressiveness in recent years.

The context in which Trump’s criticisms have been made is, however, unusual and disconcerting for multiple reasons.  First, and most fundamentally, past disputes over defense spending within the alliance have generally taken place in an environment in which NATO was regarded as one of the essential pillars of American foreign policy and the US commitment to NATO was embraced by one administration after another (though sometimes in the face of domestic criticism). Trump, in startling contrast, has openly questioned the value of NATO, sometimes describing it as a burden. He has raised doubt about the US commitment to Article V of the NATO treaty, producing uncertainty about US reliability in the collective defense of NATO Europe. And he has, in various contexts, described NATO allies as foes of the US. Hence, Trump’s fight with allies over defense spending does not seem a well-intentioned effort to strengthen the alliance, as was the case in the past, but rather part of a broader assault on NATO – an assault that is consistent with Trump’s longstanding beliefs. Is he genuinely worried about improving an institution he described as “obsolete” during his campaign for the presidency?

This concern is reinforced by several other points:

  • Trump’s demands on the allies have not been for carefully and collaboratively developed programs for improving NATO’s defenses. Rather, Trump has hurled at the allies demands that are unplanned, unreasonable, and infeasible – suggesting at the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels, for example, that NATO Europe should rapidly more than double defense spending to 4% of GDP, a level that exceeds even US defense spending. Insisting that NATO Europe meet unachievable objectives seems more likely to humiliate allies than to help the alliance, but may help Trump persuade the American public that the European allies simply refuse to pay their fair share. Developing a program to build up the alliance is best done privately and seriously, not publicly and implausibly.
  • The genuineness of Trump’s push on NATO defense spending is undermined by his enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin and his apparently unquenchable desire for better relations with Russia. It is incoherent to be by far the foremost champion in the West of improved relations with Moscow while claiming that massive increases in defense spending are necessary for NATO. If Trump does not see Russia as threatening, as seems to be the case, then why is he worried about the adequacy of NATO’s defenses?
  • Trump’s concern for NATO’s finances seems rooted in a basic misunderstanding of how NATO works. He seems to regard NATO as a club in which members pay dues and he is adamant that most NATO European members have not been paying their bills and hence “owe” the US hundreds of billions of dollars. In his eyes, the European allies have been cheating the US and previous administrations were “suckers” to put up with this. However, NATO has never operated like an exclusive golf club and Trump’s grievances are simply unrelated to how the alliance actually functions.

In short, Trump is raising a familiar and legitimate issue. Moreover, many would agree that increased defense spending in Europe is desirable. But he is raising this issue in a way that is damaging the alliance and that casts doubt about the genuineness of his desire to strengthen the alliance. Trump’s performance at the 2018 Brussels summit came across as a public relations stunt designed to allow him to air his complaints about NATO rather than as a sincere attempt to address serious issues.

It is completely unsurprising that NATO defense spending declined as the threat from the East receded after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With the emergence of a more assertive and bellicose Russia in recent years, there are certainly grounds for reexamining NATO’s position and undertaking a realistic program of defense expansion in response. And in fact, this is exactly what NATO did at its summit in Wales in 2014, when the allies committed to a 10-year program of expanding defense spending, with the goal of 2% of GDP (which represents a substantial increase for many NATO members) and with an emphasis on investment in new equipment. If Trump were serious about strengthening NATO and redistributing the burdens within the alliance, he would focus on the sustained implementation of the Wales commitment rather than offering up brash accusations of dues-paying delinquency and loud demands for impossible instant increases in defense spending. Ironically, the immediate result of Trump’s antics at the NATO summit in Brussels was a statement in the summit declaration of “unwavering” recommitment to the 2014 Wales program. Meanwhile, it is worth keeping in mind that NATO Europe outspends Russia on defense by five times and NATO as a whole spends 15 times as much as Russia. It is probably sensible to ask how much more is required and whether money is really the core problem before damaging the alliance with bruising public fights over defense spending.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Miller, Steven E."Is Trump Right to Demand that NATO Partners Pay More?" Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, September 9, 2018.