Ask countries we protect to pay more for joint defense

 "I think NATO's great. But it's got to be modernized. And countries that we're protecting have to pay what they're supposed to be paying."

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Spanish artillery personnel in a NATO training exercise in 2015. (Wikimedia commons)
Spanish artillery personnel in a NATO training exercise in 2015. (Wikimedia commons)

Trump keeps up drumbeat for NATO allies to pay more

As president -- just as he did on the campaign trail -- Donald Trump has urged U.S. allies in NATO to pay more for their own defense.

Trump's musings about whether NATO -- the west's military alliance -- is "obsolete" have occasionally worried longtime allies. But Trump has a point that most NATO members are not complying with the alliance's target for military spending.

As of 2014, NATO's collective agreement directed members to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense spending by 2024. According to NATO, only five counties meet that obligation today: the United States, Greece, Estonia, Poland and the United Kingdom.  

Since becoming president, Trump has done several things to jawbone NATO leaders to get their defense commitments up to the alliance's standard:

• On Feb. 5, Trump spoke with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, addressing, among other issues, "how to encourage all NATO allies to meet their defense spending commitments." Trump also said he would join a NATO leadership meeting in May 2017.

• On Feb. 6, Trump reiterated his call for enhanced defense spending during a visit to the United States Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Saying that allies should "pay their fair share," Trump told an audience of military officials, "They're very unfair to us. We strongly support NATO, we only ask that all NATO members make their full and proper financial contribution to the NATO alliance, which many of them have not been doing."

• On March 17, Trump met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and brought up the issue of NATO spending. The following day, Trump sent a pair of linked tweets that said in part, "Germany owes … vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!"

(We have previously noted the difference between maintaining the 2 percent of GDP spending threshold, which is a NATO requirement, and actually paying money to the United States for NATO, which is not.)

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she has agreed to continue her efforts "to persuade my fellow European leaders to deliver on their commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, so that the burden is more fairly shared."

However, it's too soon to say whether he's been successful, because there is no indication yet whether the allies are putting more money into their militaries.

"While NATO members have hinted at the need for them bear more of the alliance's financial burden, there are also domestic political obstacles to them increasing their defense budgets that need to be overcome," said Matthew Fay, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the Niskanen Center.

Fay added that Trump is hardly the first president to pursue this goal -- it's been going on, he said, "for decades." To cite just one example, in June 2011, Robert Gates, then the defense secretary under President Barack Obama, criticized NATO for spending too little, saying that certain allies "are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense."

Based on these developments, it's clear that Trump has not given up on this promise. But until we see concrete evidence of additional spending commitments by NATO allies who are currently under the 2 percent threshold, we will rate this In the Works.


NBC News, "NATO Critic Trump Agrees to Attend Brussels Summit in May," Feb. 5, 2017

CNBC, "Trump aims to reassure allies about US support, but asks them to pay up more," Feb. 6, 2017

Foreign Policy, "White House Rejects Claims Trump Gave Merkel Fake $376 Billion 'Bill' For NATO Payments." March 27, 2017

Andrea Gilli, "The Trump administration wants Europe to pay more to defend itself. It's not that easy," Feb. 3, 2017

New York Times, "Defense Secretary Warns NATO of 'Dim' Future," June 10, 2011

Email interview with Matthew Fay, defense and foreign policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, May 24, 2017