The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s claim that the U.S. pays the ‘lion’s share’ for NATO

(Wilfredo Lee/AP)

“NATO is costing us a fortune, and yes, we’re protecting Europe, but we’re spending a lot of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs has to be changed.”

–Donald Trump, interview with The Washington Post editorial board, March 21

“NATO is unfair, economically, to us, to the United States. Because it really helps them more so than the United States, and we pay a disproportionate share.”

–Trump, interview with The New York Times, transcript published March 26

“We pay, number one, a totally disproportionate share of NATO. We’re spending the biggest, the lion share’s paid for by us, disproportionate to other countries.”

–Trump, interview on ABC News’s “This Week,” March 27

“We pay so much disproportionately more for NATO. We are getting ripped off by every country in NATO, where they pay virtually nothing, most of them. And we’re paying the majority of the costs.”

–Trump, interview with Charlie Sykes, March 28

“The other thing that’s bad about NATO, we’re paying too much. We’re spending a tremendous — billions and billions of dollars on NATO. …We’re paying too much! You have countries in NATO, I think it’s 28 countries – you have countries in NATO that are getting a free ride and it’s unfair, it’s very unfair.”

—Trump, remarks during CNN town hall, March 29

Listen to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump discuss some of his foreign policy positions with The Washington Post editorial board. (Video: The Washington Post)

One of the most frustrating aspects about fact checking Donald Trump is that his staff almost never responds to queries or bothers to provide an explanation of his remarks.

This is highly unusual, as most politicians are quick to provide context, guidance or explanation. They may not agree with our conclusions, but such exchanges are generally mutually beneficial, in that we understand exactly what the politician was trying to say and where he or she got their information. After all, we don’t like to play gotcha, and few people ever speak extemporaneously as clearly as they would hope.

So we face a conundrum with Trump’s recent statements on the U.S. contribution to NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His simplistic and hyperbolic language—“we are getting ripped off by every country in NATO, where they pay virtually nothing”—leaves in doubt about what he is talking about. (As usual, his pronouncements are unaccompanied by any policy solutions for the problem he complains about.)

Is he talking about funding for the NATO organization? Is he talking about relative spending on the military by the members of NATO? It’s unclear. So we will fact check this both ways.

The Facts

NATO was established in the aftermath of World War II, originally with 12 members and the intention of binding together Western Europe in a defense alliance with the United States and Canada to counter the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe (known as the Warsaw Pact). After the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact unraveled, NATO expanded to include many Eastern European nations and even former parts of the Soviet Union. There are now 28 member countries in NATO.

If Trump is talking about the direct spending to fund NATO, he’s essentially wrong.

The U.S. share is calculated on the basis of gross national income — the total domestic and foreign output claimed by residents of a country — and adjusted regularly. Currently that would be about 22 percent, compared to about 15 percent for Germany, 11 percent for France, 10 percent for the United Kingdom, 8 percent for Italy, 7 percent for Canada, and so forth.

“Common funding includes both annual funding for NATO civilian and military expenses (the latter includes spending on very few NATO owned assets and is a few billion a year) and any operational military expenses, which get voted on whenever the operation is authorized,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “This includes fuel for NATO AWACS aircraft, some headquarter costs, etc.”

Here’s the full breakdown for the 2016-2017 budget period. (NSIP, one of three elements listed, refers to the NATO Security Investment Program). In 2012, the Congressional Research Service produced a report that looked at direct funding in detail. Despite Trump’s claim that the United States is spending “billions and billions” on NATO, Defense Department budget documents show the annual direct contribution is under $500 million a year.

By this metric, Trump’s claims of the U.S. paying a disproportionate share, or “a lion’s share,” are wildly exaggerated.  The U.S. pays the most, but not significantly more than the next country — and the formula for calculating the different shares is reasonable.

On the other hand, if Trump is talking about indirect spending on NATO, which exceeds direct funding, he begins to have a point. U.S. officials have long complained that other NATO members are not pulling their weight in the alliance; President Obama recently asserted to Atlantic Monthly’s Jeffrey Goldberg that some European allies are “free riders,” a term that Trump echoed in his CNN interview.

NATO documents show that a majority of NATO members fail to meet NATO’s guideline, established in 2006, that defense expenditures should amount to 2 percent of each country’s gross domestic product. The median spending in 2015 is just 1.18 percent of GDP, compared to 3.7 percent for the United States, NATO says. Just four other countries currently exceed the 2 percent guideline.

“The volume of the US defense expenditure effectively represents 73 per cent of the defense spending of the Alliance as a whole,” NATO says in a discussion of indirect funding. “This does not mean that the United States covers 73 per cent of the costs involved in the operational running of NATO as an organization, including its headquarters in Brussels and its subordinate military commands, but it does mean that there is an over-reliance by the Alliance as a whole on the United States for the provision of essential capabilities, including for instance, in regard to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air-to-air refueling; ballistic missile defense; and airborne electronic warfare.”

NATO concedes this imbalance has been an issue since the start of the alliance: “The combined wealth of the non-US Allies, measured in GDP, exceeds that of the United States. However, non-US Allies together spend less than half of what the United States spends on defense.”

“To the extent that NATO is a collective security pact, the Europeans pay less than their fair share,” said Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, who said there is “merit to Trump’s claim” despite his imprecise language. “Are Europeans free-riders when it comes to security, counting on the U.S. to pick up the slack?  Yes, without a doubt.”

Daalder, however, notes that mismatch in overall defense spending occurs in large part because the U.S. military projects its might across the globe. “Our proportion includes spending for our entire military, which of course has global responsibilities, whereas Luxembourg does not,” he said.

French diplomat Simond De Galbert, in an article in Atlantic Monthly , took umbrage at Obama’s free-rider statement, saying it was out of date. He noted that defense spending cuts have all but stopped in European countries, in response to the new threat from Russia, and that the main European powers will soon be spending two percent of their GDP on defense, thus meeting the NATO guideline.

Daalder said it would be difficult to calculate how much of overall U.S. defense spending is devoted exclusively for NATO. “Since we now have global responsibilities and since we now also redeploy forces that are based in Europe for other theaters (including Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, etc.) it isn’t really possible to come up with an accurate picture of how much of U.S. spending is in fact for NATO,” he said.

The Pinocchio Test

In short, direct funding of NATO is allocated on a reasonable formula, with the United States paying just 22 percent of the cost. That’s hardly the “lion’s share.” But indirect funding is a different issue, with U.S. defense spending far exceeding the spending of other NATO members. That’s mainly because the United States is a world power, but it’s also clear that more of the burden for defense of Europe falls on American shoulders.

At the same time, American jawboning about this imbalance and Russian aggression have begun to change the calculation in European capitals so the transatlantic gap on defense spending already may be narrowing.

To sum up, Trump is simply wrong on direct funding and is imprecise and possibly out of date on indirect funding. It’s certainly false to say that most of the other NATO members pay “virtually nothing.” That results in a blended rating of between Two and Three Pinocchios.  We tipped toward Three because he shouldn’t make such statements if his campaign is not prepared to explain them.

Three Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Check out our 2016 candidates fact-check page

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter