Trump is right when it comes to NATO

By Daniel DePetris

It took less than twenty-four hours after German Chancellor Angela Merkel departed Washington for President Donald Trump to hop on his Twitter account and cause another minor kerfuffle — this time over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), one of the president’s favorite targets.  

"Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS,” Trump wrote, "I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Nevertheless, 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!”

At first glance, the tweet looks like another attempt by the 45th Commander-in-Chief to remind European governments that there is a new sheriff in Washington who has no problem with shaking up the transatlantic alliance in order to save the U.S. an ever-dwindling pile of taxpayer money. This entire theme, of course, was at the core of Trump’s campaign for the presidency and remains a fundamental principal by which his administration approaches world affairs: America has been ripped off and taken advantage of by friend and foe alike for decades, and the political establishment has let it happen without the faintest pushback. Now that Trump is in town, the U.S. will insist that its allies pay their fare share of the collective defense burden — and if that means being impolitic about it, so be it.

NATO as an organization was founded upon the tenant that every member of the club pulls its own weight and chips in resources for the overall benefit of the transatlantic security partnership. The fact that many members of the alliance aren’t chipping in means that the entire concept underlining the North Atlantic Treaty is undermined to such an extent that the treaty itself is dangerously close to being meaningless.

Immediately after War World II, European governments had sufficient justification for keeping defense spending down. At that time, Europe was still struggling to rebuild after four horrendous years of the most destructive war in modern history.  Western Europe’s infrastructure was ravaged to such an extent that some countries looked like scenes out of the apocalypse. NATO, therefore, served a dual purpose function: it not only provided countries like France, the U.K., Germany, and Italy with a security blanket, but it also afforded them a little breathing space and an opportunity to devote their full time and attention towards getting their own economies out of the red.

Seven decades later, however, Europe no longer has that excuse. Indeed, the European Union is the richest economic bloc in the world with a GDP reaching over $16.3 trillion in 2015. Compared to previous decades in the Cold War era, Europe has accumulated such wealth and success that other regions would be lucky to accomplish half of what the continent has accomplished over the last several decades.

So what is holding European politicians back? Why can’t the likes of Germany, France, Italy, and Spain commit themselves to a defense budget of two percent GDP, a threshold that they themselves signed up to two years prior? 

A major reason that would help answer the question is that European governments simply don’t feel the urgency to do so. Europe has gotten away with spending insufficient sums in the past knowing full well that Uncle Sam — despite all of his carping and complaining — will eventually pick up the check.

Politicians in Europe, like politicians in America, also have public opinion to worry about; according to a July 2016 Pew Research survey, a vast majority of Europeans would rather keep their defense budgets at the current level instead of adding more money to those accounts. European leaders seeking to keep their seats and ministers working to maintain their portfolios no doubt see these numbers and wonder to themselves: what’s the point of higher defense budgets if it threatens my political career?

The point, of course, is that European members of NATO made a commitment and that commitments aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless and until implementation actually happens. Trump is perfectly within his rights to look at Europe and see it composed of a bunch of countries that are indeed not fulfilling the commitments that they made in 2014. It doesn’t take a mathematical wizard or a world-class businessman to scroll through NATO’s spreadsheets and conclude that the entire defense alliance would collapse onto itself if there were another fiscal crisis in Washington that forced the Pentagon to find more savings.  

Could President Trump have articulated his statements a little more clearly on Twitter? Absolutely. Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder is correct when he suggests that Trump’s knowledge of NATO’s inner workings are hazy at best. And as much as Trump would like to use Germany as a target to make a wider point, Berlin to its credit actually increased defense spending last year by adding $1.3 billion to its army. This increase will come on top of a two billion euro hike set for this year — Germany at least is making slow but steady progress.  

However controversial Trump’s latest Twitter outburst may be in the minds of many, that doesn’t mean that the goal underlining his tirade isn’t worthy of our support. The current cost imbalance in NATO between the U.S. and everybody else is unfair to the American taxpayer, and ultimately it doesn’t do European governments any favors when they remain highly dependent on a single country to defend them in the event of a national security emergency. Europe must either start moving in the right trajectory, or the two percent threshold needs to be re-negotiated entirely.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on March 23, 2017. Read more HERE.