By Willis Krumholz
President Trump is heading to the annual NATO summit in Brussels next week, and Europe is worried that things could get testy. Two issues divide the United States and our European NATO partners: NATO’s rule that requires all members spend at least 2 percent of their economic output on defense, and the Trump administration’s desire to improve relations with the Kremlin.
On the first issue, President Trump is right—as were the U.S. presidents before him—to push our European NATO allies toward fulfilling their end of the NATO agreement. NATO’s Article 5 pledge of a collective defense of each NATO member means nothing if wealthy European countries aren’t pulling their weight.
Germany, for example, spends only 1.22 percent of GDP on defense and plans to increase its defense tab to only 1.25 percent of GDP by 2021. Germany’s economy is 2.5 times that of Russia’s—Russia is the chief justification for NATO’s existence—but Germany spends only $45 billion annually on defense while Russia spends about $80 billion.
Things are so bad that Germany’s military recently made international news for having only four combat-ready fighter jets.
But Germany isn’t the only wealthy Euro-area NATO-member that refuses to meet the 2 percent rule. Belgium spends 0.91 percent of GDP on defense, Italy spends 1.13, Spain spends 0.92, and the Czech Republic spends 1.07 percent. France, partially due to operations on the ground in Africa, spends a somewhat-better 1.79 percent of GDP on its defense tab.
Canada, which controls huge amounts of relatively unpopulated territory with oodles of natural resources, spends 1.31 percent of GDP on defense.
America, of course, spends a far-higher 3.58 percent of GDP on defense. Our Pentagon budget is near all-time-highs in inflation-adjusted terms, and we now spend more on defense in real terms than we did at the height of Reagan’s Cold War military-buildup.
That being said, Europe and Canada’s paltry defense spending is ironic given how much they appear to fear Russian President Vladimir Putin. When news broke that President Trump planned a summit with Putin on July 16 in Finland, and soon after the NATO summit, European officials immediately expressed their concern in the Western press.
The European allies said they fear that Trump will “embrace” Putin after a NATO summit fraught with disagreement. And Trump’s talk of improving bilateral U.S.-Russian relations is rejected by most of NATO. Indeed, one of the areas of discord at the recent G7 meeting had to do with President Trump’s wish to have Russia rejoin the club, which was met with sharp European and Canadian reluctance.
The Canadians and Europeans are not alone. Purveyors of the foreign policy status quo in Washington also seemingly wish for Trump to avoid meeting with or speaking to Russia’s President. “I fear that this summit will prove to be another blow to NATO and our allies, and a gift to the Kremlin,” said Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA). It must be said that Schiff has been a big promoter of the theory that President Trump colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton.
But President Trump meeting with Vladimir Putin is completely normal, and imminently prudent.
Russia and America are, by far, the world’s two biggest nuclear powers. True, this is a vestige from the Cold War era, but Russia still has the ability to undermine American interests—or to cooperate with America to achieve mutual interests. In other words, even if we don’t like Putin, Russia can’t simply be ignored or shunned without adverse consequences for America.
Although Trump and Putin have had quick side-meetings at two previous multilateral events, an official one-on-one bilateral summit could uniquely benefit America’s interests. Fanciful or not, the Trump administration might be eyeing an arrangement that would enlist Russia’s cooperation to end the civil war in Syria, and reduce Iran’s influence there, in exchange for the ratcheting down of Washington’s Russia-sanctions. Ditto for Russia’s activities in Eastern Ukraine and its ties to the Kim regime in North Korea.
If a new understanding is reached, it would be good for America, for the simple reason that relations will begin to be less acrimonious between the word’s two preeminent nuclear powers.
Russia has reasons to hear out such a proposal. Sanctions have hit Russia’s economy. The Kremlin has friendly ties with Israel, who is also actively lobbying Russia to get its military out of Syria and stop aiding Iran. Russia, too, is likely seeking an exit strategy from the Middle East. And—as far as long-term grand strategy is concerned—Russia would be foolhardy to trust China as its primary long-term partner.
Put simply: If NATO has America’s best interests in mind, it should want NATO’s largest power to meet with NATO’s chief rival.
It is quite possible that the reason much of Europe sniffs at U.S. and Russian rapprochement is that much of Europe wants to free-ride on U.S. defense dollars and is unwilling to contribute their fair-share. If relations were better between Russia and America, Europe’s defense handouts could be in jeopardy.
To put it a nice way, this line of thinking is highly inconsistent.
At the NATO summit, and while meeting with Putin thereafter, the Trump administration needs to look out for American interests and put America first. That means reforming and modernizing NATO, starting with demanding allies make good on their promised contributions to our collective defense. After all, the reason we are asking them to increase their contribution is because of potential adversaries, such as Russia.
It is not a good system for the free world to rely solely on the U.S. military. Europe’s defense capabilities have atrophied in the extreme, and America’s military should be freed to focus on greater strategic threats.
And when President Trump meets with Putin, putting America first means that America shouldn’t put the NATO bureaucracy, or Europe’s lack of proper defense spending, above America’s interests. If Putin is willing to make a deal that is in America’s interest—to not spoil our efforts regarding North Korea, and to save countless lives by de-escalating in Syria—a deal should be made. There is the potential for a win-win outcome with Russia in these specific areas, and we should reject the voices who think a lose-lose outcome is preferable.
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 Washington Times on July 10, 2018. Read more HERE.