No, Trump’s NATO tough talk hasn’t fixed the alliance

No, Trump’s NATO tough talk hasn’t fixed the alliance

By Luke Vargas   

Certain NATO members have begun spending more on defense, but those plans were set in motion long before Trump told them to start paying the bills.

UNITED NATIONS – Donald Trump bragged in Wednesday’s debate that his repeated criticism of NATO members for their meager military spending compared to the U.S. had forced a change of heart across the coalition’s membership and prompted a raft of new financial commitments.

“Since I did this, this was a year ago. All of a sudden they’re paying. And I’ve been given a lot of credit for it,” Trump said. 

Those claims are not supported by the behavior of many of NATO’s 28 member states, the majority of whom continue to spend less on defense than NATO’s target of two percent of GDP. Seven NATO countries contracted their militaries this year, and combined defense spending among all members grew by only 2.9 percent this year amid a worsening security climate.

There has been a reawakening in a corner of the alliance surrounding the Baltic Sea. Poland is expanding its standing army, Estonia now houses NATO’s cyber defense command, and Latvia and Lithuania have begun hosting alliance training exercises.

(Outside of the NATO alliance, Finland and Sweden are having something of a national defense reawakening themselves, as Russian jets increasingly transit Scandinavian skies and Russian submarines – or at least the illusion of them – appear in major ports.)

US and Polish troops pose for a group photo together after the conclusion of Patriot Missile training in January, 2016. Credit: NATO
US and Polish troops pose for a group photo together after the conclusion of Patriot Missile training in January, 2016. Credit: NATO

But those new investments across the Baltics were set in motion in 2014, following Russian actions in Ukraine, and were already being implemented before Trump announced his candidacy. It wasn’t until May of this year that Trump began voicing criticism of American allies – first Japan, then Saudi Arabia and then NATO countries – for allegedly shortchanging the U.S. in exchange for Washington’s military protection.

In July he told The New York Times that he would consider whether a NATO ally was “paying their bills” before rushing to their immediate defense.

“You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments,” Trump said. “Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.”

Those comments drew widespread criticism from NATO commanders and European heads of state. What the comments didn’t do is send U.S. allies rushing for their checkbooks.

“We’ve seen a significant shift in NATO defense spending in recent years, but none of that has been because of Donald Trump,” said Robbie Gramer, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative.

“Trump definitely discovered and voiced this issue of NATO defense spending in a more brash way, but it’s been an important issue for the U.S. government for years and decades and every U.S. senior official before has plead with their NATO allies to spend more on defense.”

At a 2014 summit in Wales, NATO members pledged to increase defense spending to a total two percent of national GDP. Five nations – the U.S., Greece, United Kingdom, Estonia and Poland – now meet or exceed that guideline, but overall spending across the alliance is still suppressed.

National defense spending by NATO member states as a share of GDP. Source: NATO
Just five of NATO’s 28 member states hit the alliance’s two percent GDP spending guideline in 2016. Source: NATO

Among the major economies providing the bulk of NATO’s budget, spending growth is slow at best. France, Germany and the United Kingdom each plan to spend less on their militaries this year than they did in 2013.

Over that same period, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have increased collective spending by some $399 million. That’s a seemingly impressive figure in isolation, but as of this year, the three countries still account for 0.0016 percent of the $918 billion in combined military spending by all NATO members this year. (That’s 16/100ths of one percent)

“The U.S. Department of Defense spends as much in a few hours as the NATO member Estonia spends in its entire year on defense, but Estonia meets the two percent defense spending benchmark,” Gramer said.

A $679 billion expenditure on the part of the U.S. accounts for roughly 74 percent of the alliance’s total military spending.

But according to Heather Conley, director the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that doesn’t mean NATO constitutes the sort of raw deal to the U.S. that Donald Trump portrays.

“NATO allies are a force multiplier for U.S. military capabilities and we should not underestimate their strength,” Conley said.

When American troops train in or operate out of bases in NATO countries, Conley said the U.S. is often on the receiving end of “preferential tax arrangements” offered by host countries. Maintaining America’s global footprint without that support would not only be more costly, but might not be possible at all.

A US A-10 aircraft lands on a highway in Estonia during an August, 2016 exercise. Credit: NATO
A US A-10 aircraft lands on a highway in Estonia during an August, 2016 exercise. Credit: NATO

“The NATO allies host U.S. forces, they pay a lot for those hosting facilities – they give very preferential tax arrangements – and we benefit from being there, because we are closer to some of the hot spots so we can protect the United States,” she said.

“It’s actually more cost efficient for us to be on these bases and supporting our allies than trying to do that from home if there is a crisis and we can’t get there in time.”

That doesn’t mean America’s NATO allies can’t do more. In addition to merely increasing defense spending, smaller countries in the alliance could stretch their dollars by engaging in what defense analysts call “pooling and sharing.”

“A few countries that might not have, for example, a strong minesweeping naval force, might get together and pool and share those assets,” Gramer said. By eliminating certain niche programs and concentrating resources toward a smaller set of military operations, NATO’s combined assets would be less redundant and more specialized.

Achieving an efficient, pooled NATO force without running afoul of national defense requirements will require deft economic and relationship management of the sort an experienced business leader might possess.

But Gramer says Trump’s “unprecedented” criticisms of NATO and vocal doubt about its principle of collective self defense suggest he’s hardly that savior.

“Donald Trump in his campaign rhetoric has alienated a lot of European countries,” he said. “Staying in NATO is good business, and it’s unfortunate that Donald Trump hasn’t realized that yet.”

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