Security experts quickly attacked the flaws in Trump’s logic. On Twitter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder wrote that increased defense budgets by Germany aren’t transferred to the United States. He also pointed out that NATO decided to make the 2 percent requirement mandatory just a couple of years ago. The alliance gave all member states until 2024 to reach that goal, and Germany is on track.
“Trump’s comments misrepresent the way NATO functions,” Daalder told us. “The President keeps saying that we need to be paid by the Europeans for the fact that we have troops in Europe or provide defense there. But that’s not how it works.”
Despite these critiques, this line of argument has been a near-constant refrain for Trump and his administration. Since the campaign, he’s argued that other countries aren't contributing what they should for the defense alliance. NATO members are urged to contribute 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending. Germany pays 1.2 percent; the United States kicks in more than 3 percent. Four other countries — Greece, Estonia, Poland and Britain — also meet their obligation.
Those numbers, though, don’t tell the whole story.
Since World War II, Germany has intentionally kept its military small. The country defines itself by its pacifism and its commitment to the idea of “never again.” Germany’s defense spending — or lack thereof — has frequently been criticized and mocked in the past. In 2014, for instance, German forces made headlines when they were forced to use broomsticks instead of machine guns during a NATO exercise, exposing the state of its underequipped military.
But, Germans argue, they make up for this in other ways. As Merkel argued in a speech last month, mutual security goes beyond military spending. International development aid on things like hospitals and schools does as much for peace as warheads in Europe. “When we help people in their home countries to live a better life and thereby prevent crises, this is also a contribution to security,” Merkel said in Munich. “So I will not be drawn into a debate about who is more military-minded and who is less.”
She and other German leaders also point out that they’re bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, spending 30 to 40 billion euros a year. If that was included in the tally, they say, they’d be putting more than 2 percent of their budget a year toward security. (They’re also quick to note that U.S. military interventions are one reason there are so many displaced people from the Middle East.)
Not everyone agrees. For the countries on Europe’s eastern border — places like Poland, Latvia and Lithuania — military might isn’t an abstract idea but an insurance policy against Russian invasion. (Russia, for its part, keeps tanks and missiles stocked right up against the NATO border.) At last month’s conference, Artis Pabriks, a former defense minister of Latvia, responded curtly: “For me, as a Latvian, it sounds a little bit bitter that support for my borders and the security of my country will be challenged because some other European nations will not pay their share.”
And Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the alliance, told Time magazine last month that, “it’s not either development or security. We need both.” “When we live in more challenging times, we need to invest more in defense,” he went on. “We need peace and security to facilitate development.”
Germany says it will increase its military spending by about 3 billion euros per year for the next eight years. By 2024, the country will be meeting its NATO commitment. That plan though, still needs to be approved by the German government and parliament.
And Trump may be making that harder. As Marcel Dirsus, a German security politics scholar, argued, the president’s public criticism of German defense spending could backfire, making it harder for Merkel to increase the country’s defense budget, particularly just months before a tough reelection campaign.
An “increase in defense spending is unpopular, and so is Donald Trump. By ‘ordering’ Merkel to increase spending, he will make it harder for her to sell that increase at home,” he said. “Nothing would be worse for Merkel than being seen as taking orders from Trump. Ultimately, I predict Germany will increase spending — but at the pace it had already committed to.”
Rick Noack contributed to this report.