President Donald Trump has continuously stressed that the US spends an “unfair” amount of its defence budget – by far the world’s biggest, around $600 billion in 2016 – for the protection of Europe, while most European allies have not fulfilled (or even committed themselves to eventually fulfilling) NATO’s requirement that members spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence.
Even after he met Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on March 17 and praised NATO as well as Germany for their leadership role in Afghanistan and in working to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, President Trump could not refrain from tweeting: “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!”. In response, Germany’s Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen stated that “there is no debt account in NATO”, noting that Germany’s defence budget is also spent on UN peacekeeping and other missions, as well as contributions to the fight against terrorism – including the US-led coalition against ISIS. In other words, Germany owes nothing to the US. In addition, in a widely quoted series of tweets of his own, former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder explained how the Alliance functions (including in financial terms), implying quite clearly that President Trump does not have a clue about NATO.
The good news is that President Trump has finally (and hopefully permanently) moved away from using rhetoric that labelled the Alliance “obsolete” to acknowledging NATO’s importance. The bad news lies not in the fact that Trump continues to urge European Allies to raise their defence budgets and bring those in line with the 2% requirement –after all, this had also been repeatedly stressed by his predecessor Barack Obama – but the way in which he approaches this issues. Recalling Trump’s comments during his presidential election campaign, it seems that he makes a very simplistic, but also extremely dangerous link between the Article 5 commitment and the 2% pledge: if you don’t “pay” 2% of your GDP, then you cannot expect US protection under Article 5. In other words, Trump effectively equates the collective security commitment – the very raison d’être and foundation of NATO – to the 2% pledge, thereby virtually rewriting the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949. Such a blunt transactional approach would fit perfectly in some other contexts – perhaps concerning certain families connected by “protection money” – but it does certainly not belong to a Western intergovernmental organization of NATO’s magnitude. A somewhat representative parallel could be the pledge of EU member states to keep their state budget deficit under the 3% limit. But even in that case – in which there is a legal commitment, not a political one – many compromises have been reached for the sake of solidarity and for keeping the Union strong.
Finally, while it would be an interesting intellectual exercise to calculate the amount of defence expenditures – including those made by the US – devoted strictly to upholding and strengthening NATO’s collective defence in Europe, politically and practically this would be an entirely futile task. Nevertheless, let us venture briefly on this path in order to give an answer to President Trump’s question (about who “owes” whom), disregarding for the moment that there are far too many things that cannot be measured directly if at all in concrete financial terms (e.g. avoiding a global conflict with catastrophic consequences for all Allies, providing nuclear deterrence, etc.).
First, the US spends only a relatively small fraction of its huge defence budget on Europe. The estimated annual cost of America’s military presence and activities abroad is around $100 billion, and we can roughly deduce the share for Europe from the number of troops assigned to the US European Command. While the US has sent additional troops to Europe this year, the overall number of American troops and bases in the rest of the world – including East Asia – is far higher than in the Old Continent: about 60,000 from a total of some 150,000 deployed around the world are in Europe. While it is true that the US has increased its European Reassurance Initiative funding (from $800 million to $3.4 billion in fiscal year 2017, which is meant to cover expenses related mostly to the deployment of the US Army’s 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team to Poland), many European allies have also raised their own defence budgets responding to increased collective defence needs. For example, Estonia spends even more than the 2% target on defence in order to cover additional Host Nation Support costs related to the enhanced Forward Presence of allied troops on its territory.
Moreover, US forces deployed in Europe have been used in Afghanistan, and may be used in other future out-of-area operations that are not directly connected to the collective defence of European allies. The Sixth Fleet of the US Navy in the Mediterranean Sea does not only cover Europe’s Southern flank, but it is also meant to act in the MENA1 theatre, including the defence of Israel. Therefore, it is almost an impossible mission to calculate the precise sum that the US spends yearly in direct and exclusive connection to the collective defence of European allies; however, at the same time, it appears that the respective figure would most probably not be higher than the annual defence budget of Germany, the UK, or France taken separately, not to speak of all the European allies combined.
Therefore, the 2% pledge is the only rational and reasonable option for measuring the financial contribution of the Allies – paying special attention to the quality of spending. It should not be used by anyone in order to cast doubt on the political commitment of any Ally to support collective defence or to undermine the role of NATO as a whole in the defence of the Allies.
1 Middle East and North Africa