The second came when Donald Trump was elected president.
Trump had two instincts that ran against the history of U.S. involvement in organizations such as NATO. He felt that the U.S. military was being taken advantage of by other countries, like European nations or South Korea, and that the financial obligations that resulted should be offset by drawdowns or increased funding from our allies. That was the other instinct that Trump didn’t share, by the way: He didn’t express a lot of interest in historical alliances or the value they offered. He got a different reaction from people like Russian President Vladimir Putin — stroking, generous — than he did the leaders of America’s actual partners, for whom ingratiation was not presumed to be a needed exercise. So NATO, an international alliance depending disproportionately on the United States, was not his favorite. (That it was also not Putin’s favorite will be a coincidence left to historians to adjudicate.)
The primary way in which Trump’s antagonism to NATO was manifested was in his insistence that member nations owed unpaid dues to the organization. This wasn’t true. What was true was that, after Russia’s Crimea move in 2014, the member nations set a goal of spending 2 percent of their nations’ gross domestic product on defense by 2024. And, with 2024 some years away, few had reached that target.
Over and over, Trump repeated this claim about countries not paying their dues and then, as spending increased, he repeatedly took credit for the shift. At times, there was an explicit effort to placate Trump’s concerns, as when a number of allies agreed to contribute more to the alliance’s direct costs. On the issue of defense spending, though, it’s a little trickier to assign credit.
It is the case that nearly every participating country increased its spending as a function of GDP between 2017 and 2020, according to a NATO report released in March. (It uses estimated numbers for 2020, I’ll note.) In 2017, when Trump took office, only four countries were spending the equivalent of at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. In 2020, 11 were.
But 16 countries had already increased spending from 2014 to 2017 anyway. The average percentage spent by NATO countries — shown in the graph at lower right, above — doesn’t show a sharp increase post-Trump. Instead, it shows a smooth upward transition, from a low in 2014. On a country-by-country basis, it’s also the case that the shifts are often subtle.
Not to mention that the figures themselves can be apples-to-oranges. In Greece, where the 2 percent figure has long been met, three-quarters of spending is on military personnel compared to an average of 50 percent in the other countries. That figure includes things like pensions.
President Biden is in Europe, his first foreign trip as president. On Monday, he’ll participate in a NATO summit in Brussels where, it’s safe to assume, many of the attendees will greet him more warmly than they did his predecessor. Polling released by the Pew Research Center on Thursday shows that European confidence in the presidency has rebounded after Trump’s departure, as favorable views of the United States have similarly improved.
Among European leaders, of course, there’s an added cause for relief: No longer will the biggest dog in the room be barking at them instead of their shared opponents.
What remains to be seen is if a friendlier approach from the United States reverses the post-2014 trend on spending.