By Jeremy Lott
President Trump has many vices, but subtlety is not one of them. In his usual Saturday morning Tweet storm, the president denounced reports that he had anything other than, “a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel” at the White House the day before. “Nevertheless,” President Trump added, “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!”
He believes European nations need to pay their fair share for the common defense that NATO guarantees to all its members. To ensure fairness, the U.S. government is arguing – more forcefully these days, but consistent with past administrations – that every NATO member must live up to its obligation to spend at least 2 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on armies, munitions and other things that we call “defense spending.”
Relatedly, the president believes that for too long America has shouldered too much of the burden to provide for the common defense. Only 5 of 28 NATO members, including the U.S., met the minimum and most nations’ spending falls considerably below the 2 percent. Germany spends 1.2 percent. The U.S. currently has about 65,000 troops permanently garrisoned in Europe, as well as several thousand troops on temporary rotation.
Just this January, America shipped 3,500 more troops to Germany and then onto Eastern Europe in what one news service characterized as “The larges armed U.S. military brigade to be deployed in Europe since the end of the Cold War.”
This all costs an awful lot of money. As the Republican nominee, President Trump had been skeptical that it was worth it. As president, he has decided to go along with NATO, on one condition.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis telegraphed the White House’s message on his first European trip, telling our wealthy allies in Brussels that America would support NATO but that they would need to step up and do a better job of supporting NATO too. “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do,” Mattis warned.
Trump and Mattis aren’t arguing with a straw man here. There are plenty of European politicians with sway who would dearly like to go along with the status quo of their nations cheap riding on America’s forces on the continent.
German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel called efforts to boost his country’s defense spending to 2 percent of GDP “completely unrealistic.” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said that he didn’t “like our American friends narrowing down this concept of security to the military.”
Juncker acknowledged that the demand is not something that Trump came up with. Indeed, “it has been the American message for many, many years,” he said, and “I am very much against letting ourselves be pushed into this.”
That sort of nonchalant “Let the Yanks worry about it” attitude is what President Trump is up against in pushing rich European countries to pay their fair share. Many of President Trump’s critics have focused on that fact that legally Germany doesn’t owe “vast sums of money” to the alliance, but that misses the point. He’s trying to use the bully pulpit of the presidency, amplified by Twitter, to bring about a much-needed change in world affairs.
Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by Forbes on April 7, 2017. Read more HERE.