BRUSSELS – President Donald Trump’s demand at the NATO summit for members to double military-spending commitments has reignited a debate among allies about what constitutes contributions to the alliance.
At the start of two days of meeting with NATO leaders, Trump signaled he would push the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to raise its defense-spending target, currently obliging members to spend 2 percent of economic output on defense, to as high as 4 percent. Only the US spends more than 3 percent, with seven other countries above or near the 2 percent level.
In a tweet Thursday morning, Trump reiterated his new target.
But Germany, which has been in Trump’s crosshairs for spending only 1.24 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, said the sole focus on military spending is misplaced.
“I would like to see the businessman Donald Trump... not only look at the balance sheet, but also look at the output,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on the sidelines of the alliance gathering.
Germany, she said, is the second-largest troop contributor to NATO and the second-largest net payer into the alliance. Germany pays 14 percent of NATO’s annual budget, behind only the US, which finances 22 percent.
Germany’s position was echoed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after Canada at the summit agreed to lead a new NATO training mission in Iraq. “A lot of people talk about the 2 percent,” Trudeau said Wednesday. “Announcing money put in, announcing inputs, isn’t nearly as important as demonstrating outputs.”
NATO members this year are poised to spend around $1 trillion on defense combined, dominated by $706 billion from the US If all NATO members made their 2 percent commitment, alliance spending would rise by roughly $110 billion, a NATO official said. The amount is roughly equivalent to the combined French and British defense budgets. A spending level of 4 percent would boost overall NATO spending by roughly 50 percent.
Trump has said the imbalance is “unfair” to the US. During the summit, he tweeted “the US is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billion on Trade.” He said European NATO members needed to reach the 2 percent spending target immediately, rather than by the agreed deadline of 2024. The US now spends 3.5 percent of GDP on defense, according to NATO.
How much of the US money actually benefits NATO is a matter of debate. NATO data includes all US military spending but the outlays are spread far wider. The US has large military forces in Japan and South Korea. Others are in the Middle East and Africa. Much of the US Navy is oriented toward the Pacific Ocean.
“At least some political claims about the “burden” seem to grossly exaggerate the size and cost of the US forces actually dedicated to European defense, and ignore the value to the U.S. of forward deployments and staging capabilities in Europe, along with the value of allied forces in supporting the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Anthony H. Cordesman, analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said in a recent report.
Calculating the US contribution is difficult, because some military capabilities, such as the flotilla of aircraft carriers or the fleet of B-2 bombers based in the US, can support military operations globally.
Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, a defense economics research fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, estimates the U.S. contributes about $36 billion directly to European security. European NATO members spend $286 billion, according to NATO data.
“America is spending its defense dollars principally for its own security needs, as well as to support a range of interests and allies in other regions around the world, not exclusively Europe,” Béraud-Sudreau said.