Heads of state and heads of government recently attended the 2018 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit held in Brussels, Belgium. There, President Donald Trump created controversy by criticizing Germany and calling other allies “delinquent.” Yet, he deemed the meetings a “success.”
Barry Posen, a leading national security expert and Cold War historian, offers in-depth scholarship on the historic meetings. Posen, a Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program, discusses the role of NATO today, and whether the alliance is “stronger than ever,” as President Trump stated in a post-summit press conference. And he provides historical context on defense spending, which was a chief criticism of the U.S. president.
Q: A core argument of President Trump’s going into the NATO Summit was that the defense spending by our allies is significantly imbalanced and needs to be increased. This issue has also been cited as an issue by earlier U.S. presidents. Do our allies “owe” us money?
A: For many years, U.S. officials, including past presidents, have registered their displeasure with the level of defense spending by the NATO allies. It has been a guideline, perhaps since 2006, reaffirmed at the NATO Wales summit in 2014, that each ally would endeavor to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense. At Wales the allies further set 2024 as the year when this objective should be achieved. The fact is that NATO's own figures — which differ slightly from national figures as a result of an accounting system that tries to ensure that each member's overall efforts are measured identically — show that the U.S. will devote 3.5 percent of its economy to defense in 2018, while the European average is expected to be 1.5 percent; and that follows four years of European increases.
If one subscribes to the argument advanced by alliance supporters on both sides of the Atlantic, that NATO is an alliance of liberal democracies, which constitutes the foundation of a liberal world order from which all benefit, then all should contribute, and thus this is a very significant gap. It must be remembered that Europe as a whole is a very wealthy region; European nations can afford to invest more for their own security. Thus, the Europeans are cheap-riding on the U.S.
That said, the allies don't "owe" the U.S. money in a legal or even an administrative sense. Other than a small budget for NATO infrastructure, there is no gigantic pool of NATO military funding to which we and the Europeans are meant to contribute. There is no official military account in deficit on anyone's books, awaiting European checks.
If one looks into what the European spending does buy, there is a further difficulty: European defense spending is inefficient. Some of this inefficiency reflects the fact that the spending is distributed across 26 independent countries, some of them very small. But even the large countries are often inefficient. Germany, the most productive economy in European NATO, seems to get much less than it should for the money it does spend, which the president fairly points out is only about 1.25 percent of its GDP. For example, at best a third of its military equipment is in working condition.
Q: Some scholars have argued that NATO is obsolete. What role does it play today?
A: Rather than ask whether NATO is obsolete, one should ask whether its benefits to the U.S. are commensurate with its costs to the U.S. This is a matter that should be debated.
The original U.S. strategic reason for joining NATO was to ensure that the damaged but still productive post-World War II European economies would not fall into the hands of the Soviet Union and be turned against us. The U.S. never wishes to compete with a hegemonic power that controls all the wealth of western Eurasia. The elimination of this security threat was achieved with the Soviet collapse in 1991. Russia today is a mere shadow of the Soviet Union; France and Germany together have vastly more economic potential than Russia, and they even spend more in absolute terms on defense. So the great threat to Europe is no more. Russia is a pain in the neck, not a candidate for continental hegemony. NATO still does provide the U.S. with bases in Europe, troop contributions to various campaigns of the global war on terror, and some intelligence cooperation. NATO has also drawn the U.S. into three strategically unnecessary, if small, wars — Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya.
On the cost side of the ledger, the U.S. spends a great deal to be prepared to defend the European allies. Journalistic coverage and expert commentary on the NATO summit have been misleading on this score. Some like to count only the cost of the U.S. forces based in Europe, some 70,000 people in uniform, which is significant but not gigantic. This is absurd: Those forces enjoy their deterrent and combat power due to the logistics and training base, and more importantly the reinforcements, and even the nuclear deterrent force, based in the U.S. It may be hard to estimate the costs accurately, but we should try. For most of the Cold War, the U.S. built its forces to deal with two nearly simultaneous wars, one each in Europe and Asia. In the post cold war world, we amended this to two "major regional" wars against a variety of possible middle power challengers. The Pentagon's recently released "National Defense Strategy" redirects U.S. military planning toward great power rivalry, which among other things means deterring Russia in Europe. Presuming that the "two major war" standard persists, it is reasonable to attribute half of current U.S. defense spending to the NATO commitment. Interestingly, this gets us to 1.75 percent of U.S. GDP, which is close to the 2 percent that we have asked the allies to achieve, and to which they aspire.
So the question citizens of the U.S. should ask, is what strategic benefits does this vast expenditure attain? If the most serious threat to the U.S. is gone, and the Europeans are rich enough to defend themselves against the threats that remain, should NATO continue to enjoy the priority is has had in U.S. national security policy? The U.S. foreign policy establishment has turned its attention to Asia, and the rise of China, which will likely prove a more formidable competitor than the Soviet Union ever was. This will require significant resources. Beyond security matters, if one day the U.S. begins to focus again on the ballooning national debt, the country will need to find the money somewhere.
Q: At a post-NATO Summit press conference, President Trump announced that “NATO is much stronger now” than it was before. Do you agree?
A: NATO is neither stronger nor particularly weaker than it was before. The Europeans concluded four years ago that they needed to increase their defense spending. They have made some increases since 2014, and plan for further increases. Some alliance members seem on track to hit 2 percent of GDP fairly soon; unfortunately most of the richer and potentially more capable allies are not quite on track, though they are increasing their spending. For the sake of calming the president, at the recent Brussels summit they may have verbally re-committed to their efforts, but as the president likes to say, "we will see what happens."
It is also critically important how the additional funds are spent. Decades of underfunding have left European militaries in woeful shape. It will take focused management attention to ensure that new money is not simply spread like butter across projects that may contribute little to the solution of key military problems.
I am dubious that all the allies will reach 2 percent of GDP allocated to defense. In the past, allied efforts of this kind have often started strong and then petered out. The basic structure of the alliance causes this. The U.S. is a very great power, and aside from President Trump, the foreign policy establishment views the U.S. as the guardian of (the) world order. So long as the U.S. is strongly committed to NATO, the allies know that if they do a little less, we will fill any important gaps. Economists call this the free rider problem. In his way, the president may understand this, and could count it a political victory if, as a result of his targeted truculence, no slackening of European efforts happens on his watch.