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NATO, Trump, and the Return of the Burden-Sharing Debate

By Andrea Bodine, Transatlantic Community Analyst; and Mitch Yoshida, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


Photo credit: NATO

As North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

leaders prepare for a summit meeting in Brussels on May 24-25, they face heightened uncertainty about the future of the Alliance. U.S. President Donald Trump, like his predecessors, has voiced support for NATO while emphasizing the need for a more equitable defense spending burden within the Alliance. Unlike his predecessors, Trump has suggested that the U.S. may not aid NATO allies when attacked if they do not meet the Alliance’s non-binding pledge to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. Alarmed by the prospect of abandonment, some European leaders have floated proposals to reduce their dependence on the U.S. for conventional and nuclear deterrence. Rather than duplicating the full range of defense capabilities provided by the U.S. – a costly endeavor for which there is little political support – European NATO members should seek to retain the U.S. defense commitment.  


Since its founding in 1949, NATO has stood on the bedrock assumption that the security of its members is indivisible. The North Atlantic Treaty, which established the Alliance, created a system of collective defense – also known as the Article 5 commitment – whereby an attack against one NATO member would be considered an attack against all. In that event, every member would be obligated to respond to restore peace and security in the North Atlantic area. From the start, the U.S. has made the most “direct contributions” to NATO’s budget while sharing the cost of sustaining its bases in Europe with host states. But far more significant, in financial terms, has been higher overall U.S. defense spending as a percentage of its GDP – known as “indirect contributions” – compared to all other members. Largely dependent on the U.S. for conventional and nuclear deterrence, and for addressing threats that affect them farther afield, many members of the Alliance have chosen not to invest more in defense.

In response to this imbalance, U.S. administrations have routinely accused European member states of free-riding since the early 1950s. Even though indirect contributions are only a rough measure of useful military capability, NATO members have used it since 1978 when, at the behest of the Carter Administration, they agreed to non-binding annual defense spending increases of 3% above inflation. Nearly all allies met this target in at least one year from 1980 to 1986, but the U.S. did so every year. After the end of the Cold War and steep cuts in defense spending across the Alliance, it was not until 2006 that NATO agreed to a non-binding defense spending target of at least 2% of GDP.  

Under the Obama Administration, the Alliance reaffirmed the 2% target in 2014. But this has had little effect on European members with competing budgetary priorities and the perception that there is insufficient need to invest more in defense. In 2016, only 5 out of 28 members met the 2% target: Estonia, Greece, Poland, the UK, and the U.S. Most notably, core EU defense actors France and Germany are not on this list. And while France and Germany continue to support defense integration to gain more capability per euro spent, concerns about potential losses of national strategic autonomy have limited progress in this area. This reticence is partly reflected in German and French public opinion: More than 60% oppose increases in defense spending, and more than 50% oppose aiding an Alliance state if it is attacked by Russia. But support for European defense integration is above 80%.

In line with previous administrations, the Trump Administration has reaffirmed the importance of NATO while criticizing European member states for insufficient defense spending. President Trump has, however, stated that he is prepared to go a step further than his predecessors to rectify the spending imbalance. During his presidential campaign, he deemed NATO obsolete for failing to focus on terrorism, called it disproportionately expensive for the U.S., and warned that under his presidency the U.S. might not come to the aid of attacked NATO member states that do not increase defense spending. After the election, outright threats of abandonment were downgraded to insinuations of abandonment by Trump and key members of his administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense General James Mattis. Although Trump recently retracted his argument that the Alliance is obsolete, he restated his concern about the defense spending imbalance.

With the exception of Britain, which exceeds the 2% target, the most militarily capable European members of the Alliance have responded to this uncertainty with calls for greater strategic autonomy at the European level. German Chancellor Angela Merkel asserted that Europe is responsible for its own fate and French President Francois Hollande reportedly stated that Europe should avoid being relegated to a “submissive” role in defense. The potential formation of an EU-wide nuclear deterrent to replace the U.S. nuclear umbrella has also been discussed by officials in Germany, Poland and Hungary.

Prospects and Implications

It remains unclear if the Trump Administration intends to reduce support to or abandon NATO allies that do not increase defense spending to 2% of GDP. If it does, the credibility of the Alliance’s Article 5 commitment would collapse – eliminating its role in reassuring members and deterring external actors. Northern, Eastern and Southern European states would face significantly more pressure to strike unfavorable deals with a resurgent Russia. Even if the most militarily capable West European states increase defense spending and integrate in response, in the near-term they would still face strong incentives to accommodate Russian interests. Russia itself would no longer face a major barrier to the full use of hybrid warfare against these states. A European security crisis of this scale could also be triggered by U.S. actions that fall far short of actual reductions in support or abandonment, such as repeated calls for abandonment or the repositioning U.S. forces in Europe.

If the Trump Administration does not intend to abandon or reduce support to NATO allies, and is threating to do so in an attempt to extract concessions on European defense spending – and it is perceived that way by European leaders – the status quo is likely to be sustained in the current security environment. This outcome would not remedy imbalances in defense spending, increasing the likelihood that future U.S. leaders will moderate or end America’s commitment to the Alliance as their attention turns to the Asia-Pacific region. Nor would it address low public support for the Alliance’s collective defense provision in France, Germany, and other members. In combination, these aspects of the status quo risk fracturing the Alliance during a future crisis.


Given the stakes, the Brussels summit should be used as an opportunity for NATO leaders to work toward a new bargain that strengthens the Alliance. For the Trump Administration, pressing for additional contributions using all forms of available leverage is essential. But it should refrain from threats to abandon or even moderate support to Alliance members lest it trigger a European security crisis. European leaders should impress this point on the administration, but they should also act to retain the U.S. commitment to the Alliance by meeting the 2% target – a less costly and more politically viable option than duplicating the full range of U.S. defense capabilities.

France and Germany should also lead the EU toward deeper defense integration within the framework of the union’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). Forging a common vision for the purposes of EU defense capabilities is a prerequisite for addressing concerns about losses of national strategic autonomy. It would also permit additional integrative steps, including movement toward a more open and competitive European defense market that would lower the cost of defense. Transforming the EU into a more potent defense actor is strongly supported by publics across the EU, and accomplishing this would deliver a tangible achievement for the European project as it faces intensifying opposition from euroskeptic parties. By increasing capability for every defense euro spent within the context of NATO, moreover, European members would attain a basis for negotiating the 2% target with the U.S.


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