NATO Members Owe Money. To Themselves, Not the U.S.
Since the decision was made in 2006 to require NATO members to spend 2% of their GDP on defense, only five countries have lived up to that promise. President Trump is correct in drawing attention to NATO members' chronically underfunded militaries. He is absolutely incorrect, however, in stating that NATO members owe any amount to the US for services rendered.
On his maiden voyage abroad as President, Donald Trump excoriated NATO leaders for owing "massive amounts of money" for their defense and argued that this "is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States." This was a continuation of his previous claims that Germany owes "vast sums of money" to the United States and his campaign rhetoric that freeriding NATO members "owe us tremendous amounts of money."
NATO does, in fact, have a spending problem. Unlike most out-of-control spending problems, however, NATO's challenge is getting member states to pay enough to grow, modernize, and maintain their countries' military capabilities. President Trump is correct in drawing attention to NATO members' chronically underfunded militaries. He is absolutely incorrect, however, in stating that NATO members owe any amount to the US for services rendered.
NATO was founded in 1949 as a strategic alliance designed to preserve peace and stability while preserving the collective defense of its members. NATO was created to safeguard freedom, democracy, and individual liberty and to deter or resist any armed attack on member states by both individual self-help and mutual aid. For over fifty years, the spending habits of NATO members were guided by the North Atlantic Treaty's Article 3, which called on states to "maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity" for security and defense.
Nowhere in NATO's founding documents is there a mention of a debt account, a requirement to maintain specific military spending levels, or an agreement for members to hire each other as a security force. Contrary to President Trump's political rhetoric, NATO is not – and never has been – a racket in which weak member states pay the American mercenary cartel for protection.
Not until 2006 did NATO even outline specific military spending goals for its members. After post-Cold War drawdowns had alarmingly weakened European militaries, NATO leaders convened at the Riga Summit to reverse this worrying trend. For the first time ever, NATO states committed to a goal of spending two percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on their individual defense spending. "Let me be clear," James Appathurai announced at the Summit, "this is not a hard commitment that they will do it. But it is a commitment to work towards it."
Three years after making that commitment, NATO members were slowing their spending cuts but were, nonetheless, still decreasing their military expenditures relative to their GDP. This trend continued until 2014, when only the US, Greece, and the UK were meeting the spending target.
There are several issues with using the percentage-of-GDP metric as a benchmark. For one, it fails to account for actual defense spending and can fluctuate wildly with economic cycles, such as the 2008 recession. It also fails to include development aid that some European countries send to conflict zones in lieu of military contributions. But regardless of the imperfect metric, reductions to European defense budgets are concerning. As a result of these cuts, France shrank its army to 109,000, its smallest size in the modern age. In 2012, Germany reduced its number of battle tanks fomr 350 to 225, tornado fighter jets from 185 to 85, and capabilities to support deplozed ground troops from 14,000 to 8,000. The UK eliminated its only aircraft carrier and announced plans to reduce its army by 20%. Additionally, European allies lack air surveillance and air-to-air refueling capabilities. Belgium needed to borrow body armor from the US Army for its soldiers. NATO Brigades do not have enough ammunition to adequately train.
In response to these problems, NATO leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the two percent spending goal at the Wales Summit. In 2015, Estonia and Poland rose to the challenge and increased their defense spending in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine; while still not meeting the two percent goal, Lithuania and Latvia significantly increased their spending. Despite the Wales Summit and current strategic environment, some states' defense spending stagnated (such as Germany, holding steady at 1.19%) while others continued to decrease (including France and Turkey).
It is true that, as a result of these spending shortfalls, the United States has had to pick up the slack for the defense of many of its NATO partners. This has included rotational deployments and missile defense shields in Eastern Europe, shows of force in the Baltic, and permanent bases in Europe. All told, nearly 75% of NATO's military assets belong to the USA. Broadly speaking, these efforts deter threats to Western values and institutions, bolster European allies and signals commitment to their security, and help maintain political leverage within NATO and European decision making. Operationally, the US military presence in Europe protects American interests by allowing for quicker and more effective power projection in the event of a humanitarian crisis or military deployments abroad.
But it is also true that NATO has only banded together in the formal collective defense of a member state once – when the US invoked Article 5 following the 9/11 attacks. In the thus-far sixteen-year old Afghanistan war, NATO members have spent relatively significant resources supporting the US. In the true spirit of the NATO alliance, there has been no request for repayment or mention of a debt account.
The burgeoning threats facing NATO will not soon abate. NATO members must uphold their spending commitment and strengthen their militaries and the US should continue to push them to do so. But President Trump should do so without using intimidation, obfuscation, or falsehoods. Instead of building strength through unity, such tactics will only serve to confuse and undermine the alliance.
Micah Ables earned his MA Summa Cum Laude in Government, Diplomacy, and Conflict Studies at the IDC in Israel. All opinions are his own. This article was also published on https://criticaldissonance.com/ables-nato-members-owe-money-themselves-not-us.
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