Trump Presses NATO on Defense Spending Ahead of Summit

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
July 9, 2018Updated: October 5, 2018

President Donald Trump highlighted the chasm between the massive defense spending of the United States and that of other NATO members, putting member states on the defensive before the upcoming NATO summit in Brussels.

“The United States is spending far more on NATO than any other Country. This is not fair, nor is it acceptable,” Trump wrote in a July 9 tweet. “While these countries have been increasing their contributions since I took office, they must do much more.”

Some NATO members have previously pushed back, saying the United States is also protecting its own interests by protecting its allies. But Trump countered by saying the arrangement puts the United States at a disadvantage, pointing to the measly share of gross domestic product (GDP) that most members spend on defense.

“Germany is at 1%, the U.S. is at 4%, and NATO benefits Europe far more than it does the U.S.,” Trump said on Twitter. “By some accounts, the U.S. is paying for 90% of NATO, with many countries nowhere close to their 2% commitment.”

Only eight of the 29 NATO members are expected to reach the target of spending 2 percent or more of their GDP on their armed forces this year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in February. He expects seven more to reach the target by 2024.

Germany is expected to spend about 1.2 percent this year and reach about 1.5 percent by 2024.

This year, the United States will spend about $36 billion directly on defending Europe, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. That includes running numerous military bases, missile defense systems, training operations, and more.

Trump’s approach contrasts that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who was mostly soft-spoken with NATO allies, but, right after getting elected, scrapped plans for expanding the U.S. military presence in Europe, including the building of a radar base in the Czech Republic. He also let U.S. defense spending fall.

In 2006, defense ministers of NATO members agreed to put at least 2 percent of their countries’ GDP toward defense. Instead, years of defense cuts followed, after the 2008 financial crisis.

The alliance was only jolted into action by the Russian takeover of Crimea and incursion in Ukraine in 2014. At the NATO summit in Wales that year, countries agreed to “reverse the trend of declining defence budgets” and “further a more balanced sharing of costs and responsibilities.”

They agreed to be “guided” by “considerations” to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024.

While countries closer to Russia, such as Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Poland, significantly boosted defense, most other members took a more relaxed approach, with Germany’s defense minister saying in 2015 that she didn’t see a need to meet the spending bar, Deutsche Welle reported.

Trump is demanding an increased commitment to NATO and has hinted at a willingness to walk away from the table.

“I said, ‘You know, Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you,'” Trump said, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at a Montana rally on July 5. “‘And it means a lot more to you than protecting us because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.’”

The hint of U.S. withdrawal from Europe, while unlikely, indeed seems to have made many countries hike their defense spending. While last June, NATO expected a 4.3 percent spending growth in 2017, the figure was revised in March to almost 4.9 percent and further to over 5.2 percent in July.

Germany has also recently announced it will boost its presence in Afghanistan, from about 1,000 troops to 1,300 troops.

Though the European allies expressed dissatisfaction with the uncertainty that Trump’s approach has brought them, they appear to be reluctantly getting onboard.

Trump has, meanwhile, delivered on U.S. commitments to Europe. The budget for the European Deterrence Initiative, put in place after the Russian actions in Ukraine, almost tripled between 2016 and 2017 and is expected to reach over $6.5 billion by 2019.

On another front, Trump has connected the defense issue with trade, criticizing Europe for a $150 billion trade surplus (though it can also be calculated as $100 billion) and trade barriers.

Trump has asked Europe to lower tariffs on American-made cars and other products and to buy American liquid gas. The fact that the United States maintains about 70,000 troops in Europe gives him additional leverage.

But a Europe that better defends itself and buys more American gas gives Trump another advantage because it makes Europe more resilient militarily and less dependent on Russian gas.

Trump will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16 in Helsinki, shortly after the NATO meeting. The first official summit of the two leaders was announced by both the White House and the Kremlin on June 28.

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