During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump claimed that the United States pays “a totally disproportionate share of NATO” and that there are “countries in NATO that are getting a free ride.” NATO itself concedes that “U.S. defense expenditure effectively represents 73 percent of the defense spending of the Alliance as a whole.” Now that Mr. Trump will be the next president of the United States, NATO’s European members need to own up to their responsibilities and take security seriously.
To begin, every member of NATO must ante up to the requirement of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for defense. Currently, only five countries — the United States, Greece, Poland, Estonia and the United Kingdom — are meeting the required minimum. Economic powerhouse Germany spends only about 1 percent of its GDP on defense. But NATO consists of 28 countries (all European except for the U.S. and Canada) and is supposed to be about collective defense. If 23 of 28 members aren’t paying their fair share, it’s really a security blanket bankrolled by U.S. taxpayers. The current U.S. share of NATO countries’ defense expenditures is on the order of $650 billion compared to about $250 billion for all other member countries combined.
Why should the United States spend more than double what the rest of NATO spends to essentially defend Europe? Cheap riding has a price and it’s not cheap. If — excluding the U.S. — every member of NATO spent the required 2 percent of GDP on defense, it would amount to $397 billion. That would be a more than 50 percent increase over what the rest of NATO is currently spending. Put another way, NATO has a more than $125 billion shortfall in defense spending, which means the country that spends the most — the United States — is picking up the slack for everyone else.
Moreover, there’s no reason the rest of NATO can’t spend more. The United States’ GDP is a little more than $16 trillion. The rest of NATO’s GDP is slightly less $20 trillion. NATO Europe is just over $18 trillion. If the U.S. can spend more than $600 billion, the rest of NATO — with a combined economy larger than the United States’ — can meet its obligation of slightly less than $400 billion.
There is also the question of what threat (or threats) NATO must confront. During the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had nearly a million troops ready to go to war in Europe — which was the raison d’etre for NATO and collective defense. The prospect of thousands of Soviet tanks rolling through the Fulda Gap was very real. But that was then and this is now. Russia is not the Soviet Union.
Russia’s total active duty military is not quite 800,000 personnel — the army is about half of that). Excluding the United States and Canada, NATO enjoys a more than 2-to-1 advantage over Russia with more than 2 million deployable military personnel. Given that NATO’s European countries’ economies eclipse Russia’s by more than 10-to-1 and that NATO Europe outspends Russia — $250 billion versus $66 billion — by a margin of nearly 4-to-1 on defense, it is not clear how Russia constitutes a credible threat to Europe.
NATO needs to get back to its original purpose: collective defense against military threats to Europe. The problem is that NATO has gone astray, including aspirations for “the maintenance of international peace and security.” According to a new strategic concept adopted in 2010, NATO’s definition of collective defense now includes “at a strategic distance,” which includes “crises and conflicts beyond NATO borders” that require “expeditionary forces.” No wonder that there are “approximately 18,000 military personnel engaged in NATO missions around the world.” Certainly, the United States should not be underwriting NATO so that our allies can freely pursue missions outside of Europe’s borders.
The Europeans may be right to worry about continued U.S. commitment to their defense in a Trump administration. The United States currently accounts for almost 70 percent of NATO defense spending, and has rightly called for a more equitable sharing of the burden.
If you believe Mr. Trump is about “the art of the deal,” then what he wants is a better, fair deal for the United States. After more than 60 years of the U.S. subsidizing European security, that’s not unreasonable.
Charles V. Pena is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books, 2006).