Over the course of his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump railed against the current structure of NATO, calling it “obsolete” and claiming that it was set up for Europe to unfairly take advantage of America. This, coupled with his frequent, almost religious defenses of Russian despot Vladimir Putin, frightened many foreign policy experts who are aware of the threats that Putin’s Russia poses to liberal democracy and regional security and mindful of the history of the seven-decade-old alliance. These fears forecasted a reluctance to commit to the treaty’s Article V provision, the mutual defense pact previously invoked on September 11, 2001 and fraying relations between the U.S. and longstanding NATO allies like France and the UK. As President Trump comes up on the midpoint of his first term, with two NATO summits in the books, his administration’s record on NATO relations is neither dismal nor stellar, but with more pressing threats facing NATO today than at any time since the Cold War, it may not be enough to alleviate Western fears.
The single issue that President Trump has been most outspoken about with regards to NATO is defense spending. For years, it has been suggested within the NATO community that its member states attempt to devote 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending. In 2014, the Obama Administration pushed allies to adopt the 2 percent standard as a formal commitment. Trump has reiterated that concern, going as far as to send letters to the leaders of several NATO countries warning them that continued American military spending while allied spending remains stagnant “is no longer sustainable.”
In the 18 months since taking office, Trump’s tough talk on NATO has yielded results. This year, NATO is projected to increase its collective defense spending by almost four percent with investments in stronger reinforcement capabilities, cybersecurity, and new military commands in the U.S. and Germany. Moreover, this is not due to the efforts of just a few members. When Trump was inaugurated, just four members (U.S., Britain, Estonia, and Greece) out of the 29-member alliance met the 2 percent goal. Now, that number will have doubled to eight (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania), with two-thirds of the alliance on track to meet the guideline before 2024. According to the accounts of NATO diplomats, it cannot be denied that President Trump’s monomaniacal obsession with the issue is why NATO ally spending is finally increasing after years of requests by American presidents.
Going solely by defense spending, one would assume that NATO has never been stronger and more united. However, that analysis is far too shallow. Most of what Trump is saying about NATO spending makes sense and yielded positive results. However, his tendency to minimize the threat posed by Vladimir Putin to the alliance and to perceive NATO as a bad deal for the U.S. gravely misrepresents the alliance and its underpinnings.
At the center of Trump’s NATO calculus is his understanding of why the organization exists. Aside from his devotion to the cause of increased defense spending, he has shown little interest in the alliance (including Article V, which he originally refused to commit to) and has even made comments that some at the recent NATO summit interpreted as a desire to leave the alliance altogether. Trump sees NATO as another piece of the liberal world order that he can disrupt and bully into turning an American profit.
In this transactional worldview, he values concrete results tangible in dollars and sense over promoting American ideals and interests around the world. However, in foreign policy, it must be noted that corporate interests and national interests differ. Nobody is willing to fight and die for Coca-Cola or Apple and their stock prices. What the liberal world order and national interests represent are a set of values: democracy, international cooperation, human rights, and more. As the guardian of that order and its parties (and responsible for the collective national defense interests of its parties), NATO’s value lies in its ability to promote these values by uniting 29 members in political and military cooperation against threats to the sovereignty of its members and the durability of the order. However, as the Brookings Institution’s Jeremy Shapiro writes, Trump has his eyes on a different prize:
“It seems clear at this point that Trump does not want to solve the burden-sharing problem. On the contrary, he wants to use Europeans’ collective sense of guilt over their lack of spending, as well as the European fear of American abandonment, to gain concessions on what really matters to him: reducing the American trade deficit…Trump’s focus on trade means that Europe cannot conceivably meet his demands on defense spending. If the Europeans parked a brand-new aircraft carrier off the coast of Mar-a-Lago and tossed the keys onto the 18th green, Trump would simply charge them greens fees. In the end, he doesn’t believe in the idea that America should defend Europe, so why should the United States pay anything at all? He is only interested in it if it brings in a profit. So every time Europeans respond to his repeated blandishments on defense spending with new pledges to pay more, he seems to grow ever more sure that he is on to something and doubles down on his critique.”
When the American president sees NATO as disposable and a tool to bully allies into bending to his economic will, there is a danger that the central purpose of the alliance of collective defense and military and political cooperation will cease to mean much to him. At the end of the day, American defense spending comes out to about 69 percent of total NATO defense spending (although it is worth noting that members choose to increase their own defense budgets, and their vows are not bills sent to NATO). United States participation in the alliance is crucial to its success, due both to its sheer number of troops and status as a world power. Americans need only be reminded of the only time Article V was ever invoked to recognize the return on investment of NATO, when the likes of the best militaries in the world were united in their willingness to defend the U.S. from terror. They could also look to the NATO bombings of Kosovo, which ultimately brought Slobodan Milosevic to justice and halted his ethnic cleansing.
When the alliance was created, it was set up to balance the power of the United States and its allies against that of the Soviet Union to provide deterrence. Though the Berlin Wall has been built and demolished and the likes of Stalin have been replaced with Vladimir Putin, Russia remains an existential threat to the alliance. The Trump Administration’s National Defense Strategy recognizes this, stating that Russia intends to “shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” In the past decade, Putin has made these intentions quite clear by invading two sovereign states (Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014) and, according to almost every American intelligence agency, infiltrating the American elections of 2016. Yet Trump has responded to these provocations with only superficial inconsistency. While the American president agreed to an arms deal with Ukraine (an idea that Barack Obama refused), the new 2019 National Defense Authorization Act’s provision that no funds be authorized by the Pentagon to recognize the sovereignty of Russia over Crimea was waived by the President. While the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on several dozen Russian oligarchs and officials who benefited from corruption, many of the oligarchs had four months’ notice to move their money due to a prior Treasury release.
Most demonstrably, when pressed about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Trump has repeatedly called it “a hoax” and “fake news,” despite the assertions of his intelligence agencies. Even as Putin sat next to him at a summit in Helsinki, with a chance to confront him face-to-face, Trump railed against the reliability of American intelligence and said he found Putin’s denials of interference “strong and powerful,” drawing bipartisan rebukes. Putin could not have had better fortune with Trump siding with him over his own country. Even if Trump had not acquiesced to his every demand, the meeting in and of itself could be considered a success for Putin. The opportunity to be seen as an equal by the President of the United States, a leader who with the stroke of a single pen could dilute or fortify any alliance, make strong or toothless any international treaty, seldom comes to despots who murder their political enemies and seek to undermine the democratic world order at every turn. With that in mind, some questions arise for allies: can the United States be trusted to defend the sovereignty of Montenegro if it will not confront Putin about his own incursion of American popular sovereignty? How can the United States help promote the foremost alliance of democratic powers while bestowing recognition upon and courting one of the world’s most brutal dictators?
Trump’s conception of NATO generally revolves around the idea that the United States does not get enough out of it for the hefty price it pays. Let us examine that claim for a moment in a language that makes sense to him: dollars and cents. According to political scientist Ira Straus, before NATO, the U.S. spent the equivalent of $40 trillion in today’s dollars on fighting nations that are now NATO members in the world wars alone. That does not include peacetime expenditures. With the advent of NATO, America spends roughly $600-700 billion annually on its entire global defense, from Kabul to the Korean Peninsula. Thanks to the NATO alliance, not only does America not have to worry about the threat the British navy poses to its security, but it also saves a great deal of money to devote to domestic affairs or other global defense objectives. According to Straus’s calculations, the U.S. gets about $620 billion per year out of NATO- an average of over $300 billion that would otherwise be devoted to balancing against Europe plus the $320 billion that European allies invest in the alliance per year. At the same time, the U.S. pays just $544 million annually to NATO (or 22 percent of NATO’s budget). That $620 billion return is over a thousand times the U.S.’s annual donation. Put simply, the U.S. gets $1,043 out of NATO for every $1 it puts in, an astounding return on investment that any deal-maker like Trump would have to appreciate. Indeed, while Trump may believe that NATO takes advantage of America, these numbers actually prove that it is one of the greatest bargains ever.
The way pundits discuss NATO, one would suspect that its most critical component is allied spending. In reality, they ignore one crucial element. With just four members contributing the magic 2 percent annually for much of its history, the durability of NATO could never have been predicated on equal burden sharing. Instead, it depends on solidarity, which cannot be manufactured through bullying. Solidarity relies on each side feeling that they come out of the deal with what they need and feeling that they are not being exploited or mistreated. Over the duration of the alliance, America has always understood the threat that emboldened enemies to the transatlantic alliance can pose and has stood alongside Europe in defense of its sovereignty and security. President Trump can coerce Europe into paying what he wants for as long as he wants, but unless he can stand in solidarity with them against the Russian threat and recognize the value that the alliance and Article V bring, the alliance will splinter and American leadership will cease to exist in the face of challenges that demand it.