war on the rocks

Salvaging Trump’s Legacy in Europe: Fixing NATO Burden-Sharing

February 26, 2018

Europe has been in the news plenty recently, with the NATO Defense Ministerial, the Munich Security Conference, and senior Trump administration officials fanning out across Europe to represent the president at these august gatherings. The unifying theme in most of these meetings was allied progress in reaching the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense — the Trump administration’s litmus test in gauging an ally’s commitment to NATO and determining America’s reciprocal commitment to that ally. The 2 percent goal was agreed to in 2014 at NATO’s Wales Summit. A Trumpian twist was delivered by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis at his first NATO defense ministerial: “If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense.” In the words of the New York Times, “… NATO Allies to Spend More, or Else.”

At the Munich Security Conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put a positive spin on the progress the alliance members have made toward the 2 percent mark, saying, “This year we expect eight Allies and by 2024, we expect at least 15. All NATO Allies have put forward plans to increase spending in real terms.” The administration had demanded quick action by the end of 2017, but it is more likely that almost half the alliance, including economic powerhouse Germany, will not meet the 2 percent goal in time for the July 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels or any time soon after that. Despite Trump’s frequent criticism of the Obama administration for drawing a line in the sand with Syria on the use of chemical weapons and allowing it to be crossed, he now faces the same dilemma with NATO members, having painted himself in a corner by issuing empty threats.

Trump’s demands ought to prompt a discussion on the obligations of each NATO member state. Further, it is possible that his provocations could lead to the helpful and novel consequence of a frank reckoning with what a contemporary NATO needs, and how each member’s contribution can be determined and levied.

But first, let’s look at how Washington’s push for increased defense spending by NATO members is viewed by some politicians in allied capitals.

I have heard former colleagues in Europe say that Trump’s motivation to push for 2 percent wasn’t just to strengthen NATO deterrence, but was perhaps based on a veiled attempt to sell more U.S. military equipment, a manifestation of Trump’s transactional mindset to promote “buy America,” which he demonstrated in his Davos speech. If NATO members spent their newfound defense funds on European, rather than American equipment, would this bring an end to the U.S. campaign for increased defense spending, or would this simply lead to a new American complaint?

Then there is the notion that, in some allied capitals, it is now more politically popular to just say no. The tone and comportment of this administration has made resisting Trump a patriotic duty for, or at least provided conveniently righteous cover to, some European politicians. The days of NATO equaling the United States and the United States calling the shots are fading away, since some NATO members do not seem to want to belong to a club that would have this administration as a member. Therefore, if it is Trump making the ask, it is much easier for some European allies to wrap themselves in their flag and say no.

As for the 2 percent figure, it is more of a mark on the wall, a political goal that some defense ministers require to convince their prime ministers that more spending on defense is necessary to reach the goal they themselves agreed to at the Wales Summit. But without being able to make the case that the 2 percent goal has real and specific meaning and impact for their countries, it’s a weak hand for a defense minister to play.

Thoughtful strategy would require that before one issues an ultimatum, one considers whether the objectives are even achievable, unless one is banking on failure to create a provocation. The ultimatum about defense spending assumes every NATO member state can spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, but perhaps stubbornly chooses not to. This is a popular misconception and, for a variety of political and economic reasons, some nations will never get there. But NATO members that are able to meet the 2 percent goal can serve as useful examples for other allies in persuading their leaders to approve a request for increased defense spending.

So, what are the political realities and limitations on those allies that won’t make the 2 percent goal, and how can these be addressed? Germany is a relevant example: It could easily afford to spend 2 percent, and additional funding is desperately needed by the German armed services. But 2 percent of the German economy is a large sum, entailing an increase that is politically impossible absent a large-scale Russian attack on a German NATO neighbor, by which time it would be too late for it to matter in how the early stage of such a war played out. While German spending has and will continue to increase, it is unlikely to reach 2 percent given the country’s lingering historical legacy and post-war strategic culture. Even with a more traditional partner in the Oval Office, it would be an uphill struggle for Germany’s new coalition to make a dramatic move on defense spending. Having Trump berate the country by calling it “bad Germany,” or falsely accusing it of unfair trade policies against the United States, makes the situation even worse. Any huge increases in defense spending would make Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new coalition government seem like it is submitting to Trump, and will all but ensure that any further progress on defense spending will suffer. This is, of course, all the more unfortunate given the woeful state of the German military. In this environment, it is up to the German government to begin a campaign to build a constituency that supports the military in Germany. There has been great progress since 1990 on a more active and consequential Germany lending a hand with conflicts outside its borders. Germany played an important role in the campaign against ISIL in Northern Iraq and the Taliban in Northern Afghanistan. The Germans have a compelling story to tell, one that can help justify increased investment in their military as a force for good.

Now consider Denmark and Norway. Both are wealthy, but spend well below 2 percent. On the other hand, they think strategically about where they invest their defense spending and are actively engaged with NATO exercises and operations. Politics may make it difficult for them to get to the 2 percent, but do they deserve punishment, the “or else” Mattis warned about, even while Denmark is among the few allies dropping bombs on ISIL and Norway has special operations forces training counter-ISIL units, not to mention the fact that both countries have taken active combat roles in other NATO operations? Certainly, there must be a more useful output metric that can assess the effectiveness of activities undertaken by allies like Norway and Denmark, rather than the one dimensional and arbitrary 2 percent statistic, which, conversely, overvalues the contributions of some allies, whose spending, despite meeting that goal, does little to help NATO.

Allied progress toward the 2 percent goal and what the Trump administration will say about that progress will come to a head this July at the NATO Summit. The picture will be promising with many nations making progress, although without signs from Germany that they are solid on track to 2 percent, it will be a mixed picture. But perhaps we are missing the point.

The 2 percent goal for defense spending is fine as an abstract aspiration, but NATO needs to develop a more sophisticated way of measuring contributions to the alliance. Various metrics to better gauge burden-sharing and measure an ally’s reliability have been proposed by others, and deserve serious consideration and high-level debate. NATO has worked for years on output measures to try and quantify important operational characteristics like readiness, investment and the like. But even those metrics don’t tell the whole story about a nation’s effort in the international field. Ambassadors Robert Hunter, Wolfgang Ischinger, and others have suggested that perhaps a nation’s contribution to security should include foreign assistance and other actions taken under an E.U., U.N. or other banner that promote security and stability. Mattis himself is a strong supporter of the role of foreign assistance. As Mattis told the press on the way home from Munich about how the Germans do it,

They do keep a very strong balance in their form of government between development and defense. I see no problem with that. I endorse it and support it. And you’re aware that the Americans continue to put out hundreds of millions of dollars a year, billions total, in development funding.

When it comes to NATO defense spending, as with any strategically smart investment, the objective should be optimal allocation of resources by factoring in each ally’s comparative and competitive advantages, both domestically and internationally, and by leveraging these strengths toward overall effectiveness of NATO’s objective in achieving collective security. Using this framework, the international actions of an ally in other areas would be included toward creating a more whole, multidimensional, and ultimately more useful and accurate picture of a country’s true contribution to security, a more nuanced picture that can help identify the real laggards, as well as flaws in the model and opportunities for further improvement of metrics and results. Meanwhile, by proposing a more representatively broad metric capable of reflecting the actual ways allies contribute to security and defense, the Trump administration would, at least in this one instance, enjoy the additional benefit of digging itself out of its unforced error, namely drawing a line in the sand without having considered a response to nations who have no choice but to cross it.


Azita Raji, a senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, served as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden (2016 to 2017). She is an investor, philanthropist, and a former Wall Street banker.

Image: NATO/Flickr