Donald Trump was ridiculed for not understand the sword (NATO) and shield (nuclear deterrent) concept of European geopolitics during the Presidential campaign. Yet, it seems that assumption was based merely on the idea Trump had different ideas on our alliance with NATO. Ideas I happen to agree with actually.
The Trump team might have put out conflicting messages during the campaign but the message they have been sending since November to NATO members has been unmistakably clear. Honor your commitments. Or we might change ours.
Since the end of WWII the United States commitment to NATO has been absolute. That bond, formed in the shadow of the threat of the USSR and Communism has withstood the fall of the Soviet menace. But NATO, and the role our allies have in it, have not changed since 1991 when clearly, they should.
Two major issues stand out. The first is the defensive nature of NATO. Many nations in the alliance have clauses in their Constitutions limiting or not even allowing for foreign, offensive actions. This is particularly true for Germany which has the largest GDP of any European nation. Yet, they often under perform their commitment to NATO.
Article V of the NATO agreement enshrines the core of the alliance. The Article calls for a collective defense of any nation. But, many nations read this agreement very differently. For example, the US called on Article V after 9/11 but soon found the only nations to answer the call with any significant manpower were Canada, France, the UK and Germany. Many of these nations have since withdrawn their combat troops and resources.
Obviously, 9/11 was an egregious attack on the United States. But, the limited response from many NATO nations suggest they view Article V more as a guideline than anything else. The United States has always taken Article V seriously and for decades has dedicated trillions in defense spending and hundreds of thousands of troops to honoring it. Other NATO nations seem not to.
The second issue is the percentage of national spending each nation puts towards the agreement. The chart below shows just how much a burden maintaining the alliance puts on the United States. Only four other nations out of the entire alliance hit the agreed upon threshold of two percent of GDP being spent on defense. Ironically, Greece, a nation in the throes of an economic death spiral spent the second largest chunk of change as a percentage of GDP. More importantly, no nation that failed to meet this two percent threshold in 2015 met it in 2016. In other words,no new NATO nation moved to honor their agreement.
But, keep in mind this is simply a percentage of GDP. In absolute dollars, United States spending on NATO significantly dwarfs Greece, the UK, Poland and Estonia. The chart below shows an estimate of absolute dollar spending on the alliance in 2016 (along with which nations are hitting the two percent threshold). It shows US spending accounts for more than 2/3rds of all Alliance spending.
Such a situation is simply intolerable. At a time when Americans are struggling financially, the national debt is set to rise to a staggering percentage of GDP and domestic priorities such as infrastructure and healthcare spending are rising in importance, NATO members should be taking responsibility for their defense.
Last week, the first meeting of NATO’s defense ministers was held. At the meeting, Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned NATO nations that not meeting the two percent threshold would have consequences. Not long after, a Trump spokesperson reconfirmed the administration’s commitment to NATO. Committed yes, but continuing to be willingly taken for a ride, no.
During the campaign Trump never said but hinted the United States should be willing to walk away from NATO if necessary and negotiate treaties unilaterally. Only nations willing to spend on their defense should be benefit from US defense pacts. He is right. Now the question is whether he will back it up with action or be cowed by the lifelong bureaucrats in the defense community. We will soon see.