Trump Tries to Make NATO Spending Demand Stick

But he's diminished the strength of that demand since taking office.



At the NATO summit in Brussels today, President Trump reiterated a demand that NATO members increase their defense spending to counter threats presented by terrorism, immigration, Russia, and those on NATO's southern borders.

The demand has lost some of its punch since Europe more or less called the President's bluff after Defense Secretary James Mattis first insisted American taxpayers could no longer "carry a disproportionate share of the defense of western values" in February.

Trump told NATO leaders at the unveiling of the Article 5 and Berlin Wall memorials in Brussels "23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they're supposed to be paying for their defense." NATO guidelines require members to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense.

"These grave security concerns," Trump said, "are the same reason that I have been very, very direct with [NATO] Secretary [Jens] Stoltenberg and members of the alliance in saying that NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations."

NATO leaders re-iterated a promise at the NATO summit in 2014 in Wales to work over the next decade to meet the 2 percent guideline. At the time just the U.S. and Estonia met the target. Today, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Greece have been added.

Poland and the Baltics countries have incentive to spend more on defense since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 prompted the Wales declaration.

Robert Farley, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, told Reason, "Some countries have made commitments that seem solid, and in Poland's case that seems to include big ticket items."

"As long as the NATO countries are going to be committed to a common defense, the burdens also need to be equitably shared," William Ruger, vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute, told Reason. "Our wealthy European allies have the resources and population base to step up to the plate. However, this will be a challenge given that the U.S. has not credibly insisted upon real burden sharing in the past and has created a significant free-rider problem."

But how much Trump's rhetoric may have shifted the winds toward increased defense spending remains to be seen. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker responded to Mattis' earlier critique, calling on European leaders to resist Trump's demands, arguing that foreign and humanitarian aid counted as spending toward security.

Since then, Trump has changed his campaign position, saying he believed NATO was "no longer obsolete." Calculated or not, Ruger said, it was a way for Trump "to put more teeth into calls for greater balance in the relationship."

At the same time, Trump proposed massive defense spending increases in his first budget—increases fellow Republicans in Congress say are not enough. Those increases undercut the administration's argument for other NATO members to increase their defense contribution.

So long as the U.S., which spends by far more on defense than any other country in the world, appears to guarantee the security of its allies, there will be little incentive for European politicians to call for increased defense spending.

And there is still the matter of Trump's unpredictability, of which European leaders continue to signal their fear. Some worry Trump's foreign policy moves reinforce the post-war idea that the U.S. is the world's policeman.

Bombing Syrian for alleged violation of international law on chemical weapons and the aggressive response to North Korea's nuclear missile program have done nothing to allay those concerns.