BRUSSELS — President Trump heads to a NATO summit in Brussels on Wednesday with one key talking point: Allies need to pay up on their defense spending commitments.
Few policymakers would disagree that Europe needs to spend radically more on its own security, and many European diplomats bashfully admit they have relied too long on American firepower to protect them. At the same time, voices throughout NATO are questioning whether Trump’s singular focus on the bottom line is doing more to hurt the alliance than to help it.
Trump has latched onto the notion that each NATO country should be paying at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product toward its military. Yet diplomats who negotiated that pledge in 2014 say it was never meant to turn into a weapon that could halt U.S. protections for Europe — and that they might not have agreed to it if they had envisioned a U.S. president as zero-sum as Trump.
Meanwhile, some military planners emphasize that 2 percent isn’t a magic number that ensures a strong defense, and they caution against defining defense spending too narrowly. They say that in some cases, for instance, it makes more sense to buy high-capacity rail cars than tanks. And they say a stable and secure Europe offers a political and economic dividend for Washington.
“The concern I have is that [2 percent] has become a bumper sticker which sort of amplifies the transactional approach of this administration,” said Douglas Lute, a retired three-star Army general who as U.S. ambassador to NATO was President Barack Obama’s main advocate of the pledge inside the alliance. “It gives them a ready, easy-to-understand measure of transactional pros and cons. And it was never intended that way.”
NATO policymakers have watched with alarm as Trump plays hardball with allies even as he praises longtime rivals such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he plans to meet with days after the NATO summit.
Last month, Trump sent letters to the leaders of many NATO countries warning that continued investment of military resources by the United States while allies underspend “is no longer sustainable.” He has directed the Pentagon to review the impact of pulling troops from Germany, a favorite target of his anger.
“Germany, Norway — they’re important allies for us, and yet we’re treating them like deadbeat dads,” said Ben Hodges, who until December was the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe.
As Trump prepared to leave the White House on Tuesday, he signaled again that he planned to press allies in Brussels.
“The U.S. is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them,” he tweeted. “Not fair to the U.S. taxpayer.”
Trump often speaks of the obligations as if they were bills due to NATO. That’s not how it works. Countries pledge to bolster their own defense budgets. U.S. defense spending amounted to 68.7 percent of the NATO total last year, reflecting the United States’ global ambitions and 3.57 percent of its GDP.
Critics of Trump’s single-minded focus point out that the only time NATO’s collective defense provisions have been triggered was on behalf of the United States after 9/11.
The 2 percent spending target has long lived as a rough rule of thumb within NATO. But the Obama administration pushed it as a formal commitment at a 2014 summit in Wales that took place in the shadow of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the rise of the Islamic State.
Defense planners, including some of the people who helped develop the pledge, say the figure has less to do with adequately protecting NATO than with what’s a realistic goal for increased spending, even as that spending remains well short of Cold War-era levels. (NATO has a separate, classified list of military requirements, tailor-made for each member, that reflects alliance security needs.)
“It was not a judgment that if everybody spent at 2 percent, then NATO would be fine,” said Adam Thomson, who was the British ambassador to NATO in 2014 and was involved in the push to get allies to sign on. “It was a judgment about what level could be set that was politically at least somewhat credible.”
“Nobody could quite have expected the way it has been taken up in such an unsophisticated fashion by Trump,” Thomson added. “But that, too, has had a real impact.”
Trump administration officials say the president has needed to use harsh language to jolt NATO out of complacency and scare allies into devoting more money toward defense. They say the United States has also dramatically increased funding for European defense, nearly doubling what was spent in Obama’s final year in office.
“NATO really is making progress, and they are doing it at President Trump’s insistence,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison told Fox News on Sunday.
NATO is expected to increase its overall defense spending by 3.8 percent in 2018 — the fourth consecutive year spending has gone up. When Trump took office, only four of NATO’s 29 nations met the 2 percent guideline: the United States, Britain, Estonia and Greece. This year, four more are on track — Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Romania. About two-thirds plan to get there by 2024.
Those statistics, though, mask wide variation. Greece spent 2.36 percent of its GDP on defense last year, yet much of that went toward pensions for retired service members, which serves no defensive purpose. Most of Greece’s hardware is devoted toward defense against Turkey, a fellow NATO member. France, meanwhile, spent just 1.79 percent but is involved in military conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, including ones in which NATO is also involved.
The subtlety has often dropped out of Trump’s rhetoric. So has the squishy nature of the commitment itself: Leaders said they would “aim to move toward the 2 percent guideline within a decade,” a hedge layered on a hedge.
“Two percent is not the be-all, end-all of a country’s commitment to the alliance,” said Alexander Vershbow, a retired senior U.S. diplomat who was NATO’s deputy secretary general at the time the pledge was negotiated. “Not to say that anybody should be let off the hook, but it is fair to look at broader measures.”
Some money that is clearly devoted toward security — such as counterterrorism funding for intelligence or police agencies — isn’t technically defense spending and does not count toward the NATO requirements.
“Had we had more time before Wales, getting into some of these questions about what counts and what doesn’t count would have made a lot of sense,” said Lute, the former NATO ambassador.
Living up to the spending pledge, narrowly defined, would require vast shifts for one of NATO’s most powerful economies: Germany. Based on 2017 figures, Berlin would need to up its defense outlay to $76 billion a year, from its current level of $47 billion. Military spending is generally unpopular among Germans, and the demands of the hugely unpopular U.S. president have made it even more difficult for Chancellor Angela Merkel to much get traction for spending hikes.
Some NATO diplomats roll their eyes at opposition to budget increases, since Germany’s military is woefully unprepared for a fight. Its military helicopter pilots struggle to find working helicopters to practice on. But many military planners say there might be better targets for Germany’s billions than hardware alone.
Hodges, who has raised the alarm about the difficulties of moving troops across Europe, said he would favor encouraging Germany to pour new money into infrastructure that could improve NATO’s ability to move quickly. “Europe needs more than German tanks. Europe needs German trains. So an expansion of rail capacity would allow the alliance to move faster than Russian forces,” he said.
Ultimately, many diplomats say, Trump’s approach has gotten in the way of discussions about NATO’s broader security needs.
“The whole question of 2 percent has moved out of the realm where you can talk about it in a reasonable way,” said a senior NATO diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity so that the diplomat’s country would not be next in Trump’s crosshairs. “It’s turned into a dogma. You either believe it or not.”