By Willis Krumholz
President Donald Trump has made it clear he isn’t a fan of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but new statements from the president raise the prospect of withdrawing the U.S. entirely. According to the New York Times, “Current and former officials who support the alliance said they feared Mr. Trump could return to his threat as allied military spending continued to lag behind the goals the president had set.” The Times went on to say that Trump sees the NATO alliance as “a drain on the United States.”
This story prompted an excrement-storm in Washington. Insiders like former New York federal prosecutor Preet Bharara and Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, among others, said that leaving NATO would be grounds for impeachment.
But the case for NATO, at least as it exists today, is far from obvious.
The bedrock of NATO is the treaty’s Article 5 pledge that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” But undergirding Article 5 is another pledge—Article 3—which states NATO members “will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
Thus, all NATO countries are required to field strong, capable militaries that add strength to the alliance. Specifically, each member has promised to contribute at least two percent of economic output toward defense. And a significant portion of that spending must be on heavy equipment and technology—a large and overpaid, but poorly equipped army won’t do the trick.
The reason for the two percent rule is simple. The rule ensures that all members are actually capable of fulfilling their Article 5 pledge.
Yet Europe’s wealthiest country, Germany, spends less than 1.25 percent of its GDP on defense. And Germany doesn’t plan on spending more, at least until 2021. Much of the rest of Europe spends even less than Germany does.
Of NATOs nearly 30 members, only about five meet their commitments. America, on the other hand, spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined, many of which are our partners and allies. We spend almost three times more than China, and spend over twice what China and Russia do combined.
This isn’t nitpicking. Germany’s military is so badly funded that it barely has an air force. It has less than one-third of the tanks it did in the 2000s. Of the tanks it has, less than half are fit for action. Meanwhile, only 12 out of 50 Tiger helicopters are up to shape. According to The Economist, “At the end of , none of the country’s six submarines was at sea.”
In other words, German politicians—along with the rest of Europe—seem content to let America pick up their defense-tab, which allows European politicians to direct more money to their welfare states.
Yet President Trump has still been widely derided for asking the Europeans to live up to their promises.
Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, writing in a New York Times op-ed, implies that anyone against NATO, or critical of NATO, is not “in favor of a free world.” Von der Leyen goes on to tout Germany’s increased military spending and the reversal in troop cuts that took place in the last decade. But Germany barely has an air force, and 1.25 percent is not 2 percent.
After Europe has exhibited this kind of attitude, it is no surprise that Trump has talked about withdrawing from NATO. But critics say that America exiting NATO would seriously help Russia and reduce American influence in Europe. In other words, America somehow needs NATO more than Europe does.
NATO is just a military pact, and the foundational military interests that brought NATO into existence crumbled with the fall of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a direct, existential threat to the United States and its allies. It was a nuclear threat, but Soviet forces controlled so much of Central Europe that the U.S.S.R. was also a conventional threat to European allies—it was feared that the Soviet military, through greater numbers of armored (tank) divisions, would be able to quickly mobilize and push through into Western Germany and beyond. NATO served as a deterrent against that threat, and also meant to check the power of Germany after World War II.
Today’s Russia is nowhere near the threat that the Soviet Union posed—both geographically and militarily. Russia spends only about one-tenth what America does on defense. It only has one aircraft carrier, and this carrier is embarrassing, not a state-of-the-art weapon. And Russia doesn’t have the tank divisions or air power required to plunge into the heart of Europe. Today, Russia is a geopolitical spoiler with nukes.
On the other hand, if NATO’s mission today is to deter Russia from its neighbors in Eastern Europe, there is a decent chance that the risk outweighs the reward. The Cold War is over—Russia cannot march all over Eastern Europe. But providing Eastern European states with a security blanket runs the risk that these states will behave in ways they normally wouldn’t in the absence of America’s security guarantee. Instead of wasted resources, this could risk a war.
That’s why it is high time for reform based on today’s strategic reality. Rather than strengthen the alliance’s military power, enlargement weakens NATO by adding greater American security commitments. And since NATO is governed by unanimous consent, adding in other nations’ interests makes it even less effective.
Our policies should force Europe to defend its region with the U.S. as a backstop, not the first line of defense. To the extent NATO is needed, it should be a credible alliance, not a collection of wealthy, weak states dependent U.S. servicemembers and taxpayers for protection. When America should be focusing on deterring great power conflict, serving as first responder to Europe is a dangerous misallocation of resources. And more than being unnecessary, it could provoke confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.
At the very least, Americans should seriously debate NATO’s role in today’s world, moving beyond platitudes. NATO requires of America serious obligations—we’re talking about potentially risking nuclear war if one of NATO’s members were involved in a conflict. Above all, our policymakers need to put the American people and our troops first.
Willis L Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on January 25, 2019. Read more HERE.