Viewers can expect some deeply uncomfortable moments next week as the Donald Trump Show goes on the road to the NATO summit in Brussels. There’ll be tongue-lashing from Trump that the Europeans — and the Germans in particular — are deadbeats when it comes to military spending. There will be awkward photos. Then weeks of hand-wringing about the state of the transatlantic alliance.
But for all the sturm und drang, the summit is unlikely to change a situation beset by contradictions. That’s unfortunate, because the status quo is clearly unsustainable and this crisis could — with semi-competent US leadership — prompt real reform in the global security system.
First to Trump, a man who never met a contradiction he couldn’t fully embrace. He and his political movement are equal parts isolationist and bellicose. Threaten North Korea with nuclear armageddon, then give away the store in Singapore. Pass the buck when a Navy SEAL is killed in Yemen, then order a massive military parade to demonstrate Trump’s martial prowess. Declare that the cost of keeping American forces stationed overseas is bankrupting the country, then order a massive increase in military spending.
If Trump were serious about withdrawing from NATO, as he’s hinted at doing, and leaving European security to the Europeans, he should welcome an ever tighter union of the Continental nations. Yet he rails against the European Union at every turn, laughably urging President Emmanuel Macron of France, last month, to abandon the project altogether for a sweet-but-as-yet-to-be-named trade deal with Washington.
Military alliances forged through treaties, though, don’t turn on a soundbite. Since 1949, NATO has withstood nuclear showdowns of the Cold War and proxy wars around the globe. Donald Trump isn’t going to shut off the lights on his way out the door.
But he’s also not wrong that NATO badly needs a more balanced ledger. And he’s not wrong to say, as he did in a series of extortionary letters sent to NATO leaders last month, “The United States continues to devote more resources to the defense of Europe when the Continent’s economy, including Germany’s, are doing well and security challenges abound.”
If this gripe sounds familiar, it should. Former president Barack Obama complained to the Europeans about the same underspending in 2016. “I’ll be honest,” he said, “sometimes Europe has been complacent about its own defense.”
Indeed, 24 of the 28 members of the alliance don’t spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, the target established in 2014. Germany spends only 1.2 percent. And its military is in pitiable shape. During a NATO exercise in 2015, German soldiers “tried to hide the lack of arms by replacing heavy machine guns with broomsticks.” Sad!
What Trump gets wrong is the idea that NATO is like a protection racket, where members have to pay for their continued security. The 2 percent number is just a guideline, not a legally enforceable target whereby nonpaying nations would be abandoned to the Russian army in the event of war. Furthermore, Trump’s grousing that NATO nations owe back-payments for years when they didn’t spend 2 percent is unmoored from reality.
The contradiction at the heart of this exercise in parsing of numbers is that Europe probably spends the right amount on defense, they just spend it in profligate ways. Rather than building up their own separate forces, they should pool them. The EU, properly organized, would have little trouble deterring the crumbling former superpower due east. The EU has roughly three-and-a-half times the population of Russia, and orders of magnitude more wealth for bombers and bullets.
The irony behind Trump’s demand is that simply spending more money could make NATO less effective. The alliance already suffers from a “tooth to tail” problem, where a massive logistical and bureaucratic infrastructure supports too few deployable troops. Throwing more money into the mix could exacerbate this imbalance. The alliance also has an accounting problem. Some countries, for example, count pension obligations as military spending. Others do not. If meeting the 2 percent threshold means reclassifying education, research, or pension spending as defense spending, then NATO risks turning into a paper tiger.
The real question that American should be asking, as the Europeans prepare for their hectoring, isn’t why our NATO allies spend less than 2 percent on defense. We should ask why we spend 3.5 percent and what we could get if we spent some of those dollars elsewhere.