On 25th May, NATO Leaders met in Brussels to discuss the future of the alliance. With Trumpian panache, the US President took the opportunity to scold his European allies for not spending enough on defence and accused certain countries of owing a ‘massive amount of money from past years.’
Such criticism comes shortly after the Trump administration submitted its first budget request to Congress that if enacted would increase defence spending to $639 billion. This underscores the disparity between European and US spending and raises two nagging questions. First, is defence spending an appropriate metric for burden-sharing? And second, what sort of spending enhances the Alliance’s mission?
Trump and the Two Percent
Trump’s trip to to Brussels for his first NATO Summit comes at a time when European allies have been questioning the US commitment to the Alliance. Trump has both criticised NATO, labelling it ‘obsolete’ on the campaign trail, and has indicated a more transactional approach to the Alliance which has been regarded as a ‘community of values.’ He has indicated that European defence spending below two percent of GDP is proof that European partners are not pulling their weight. As Sean Spicer announced prior to the visit:
‘[Trump] will reaffirm America's commitment to the Alliance while stressing the need for members to pay their fair share, to shoulder responsibility, to share burdens, and for the institution to continue on the path of strengthening the Alliance.’
Yet Trump’s criticism of NATO reveals a gross misunderstanding of how to achieve these aims.
First, Trump appears to misunderstand the purpose of NATO. At the Summit, Trump failed to explicitly pledge support for Article V, which commits NATO to collective defence – a pledge that every President since Truman has upheld at NATO summits. Instead Trump called on NATO, an organisation originally founded on collective defence against Soviet Russia, to limit immigration. While there is, and always has been, intense debate over the evolving purpose of the Alliance, to claim that increased defence spending is needed to tackle the European migration crisis is bizarre. His approach to tackling migration does not fall within the scope of NATO’s traditional crisis management, nor enhance NATO’s strategic objectives.
Second, the obsession with the two percent target indicates a wider misunderstanding of how NATO burden sharing functions and how it should be measured. Trump both claimed that if NATO had met the target they would ‘have another $119 billion for our collective defence’ and asserted that previous years’ money was owed.
Yet this target is crude and indiscriminate. Professor Sten Rynning has noted the target was set for convenience in 2006 because it was the median of defence spending between 1991 and 2003; it has little military justification. Nor is there a universal definition of defence spending or assessment of how spending contributes to the Alliance. As Richard Sokolsky and Gordon Adams have pointed out, the metric only reveals the burden of defence spending on a country’s economy. That the US commits 3.3 percent of its GDP to military spending (worldwide) tells us nothing about whether its military is capable of meeting NATO’s strategic priorities, nor whether its military is focused on Europe or other global missions. For example, Carnegie have noted that although Greece routinely meets the two percent target and Denmark regularly falls short, the latter has been a much more effective partner in NATO missions.
In Search of a Better Metric
Some have recently called for the two percent target to be scrapped and even its proponents have admitted it is ‘somewhat arbitrary.’ Garrett Martin and Balazs Martonffy have proposed a new ‘Alliance Contribution Ranking.’ This would measure countries’ contribution towards the three priorities outlined in NATO’s Strategic Concept by several qualitative and quantitative criteria.
These priorities are:
1. Collective Defence: the article V principle that an attack against one is an attack against all.
2. Crisis Management: the understanding that NATO should use its ‘unique and robust set of political and military capabilities’ to address crises before they turn into conflicts that could affect Euro-Atlantic Security.
3. Cooperative Security: the commitment that the Alliance will engage in bilateral and multilateral partnerships on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, and the objective to enhance international security through cooperative engagement.
A metric that assesses burden sharing against these criteria would hold a number of benefits. It focuses on outcomes and effectiveness. It would allow nations to showcase their strengths by meeting the criteria they can, and would identify specific areas where nations could improve their contribution. Moreover, it would foster a more flexible NATO as the strategic priorities of the Alliance change. If a security environment develops in which the likelihood of Article V being invoked is minimal but there is an increased need for crisis management, such a metric would help push NATO contributions in the right direction. This underlies the crudeness of the two percent that pushes instead for increased defence spending without questioning how or why this spending enhances transatlantic security.
Does the US Budget help NATO?
A case in point is the question of whether the US military budget announced this week, well over the two percent target, would noticeably further the Alliance’s goals? It is often thought that the US provides the backbone of NATO capability through its military commitments to the Alliance, and high US defence spending is beneficial to the Alliance. The budget released on 23 May certainly ticks the high spending box.
Interestingly, though, the military budget for FY2018 would represent 2.6 percent of GDP, when compared against OECD long-term growth forecasts, and thus a decline in the US’ NATO contributions according to Trump’s rubric. Similarly, the budget appropriations for Overseas Contingency Operations, including US spending on NATO operations in Afghanistan, is set to decline from $83 to $65 billion.
I am sure many will argue that an increase in US defence spending will naturally benefit the European side of the alliance, citing the importance of US nuclear modernisation and the increase in conventional forces for deterrence. But this conclusion is complicated by the way US contributions towards collective security measures could undermine crisis management and cooperative security objectives.
The hollowing out of the State and International Development Budget to fund the Department of Defence will impact US capacity to respond to crises that affect Euro-Atlantic security before they turn into conflicts, and engage in international cooperation on arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament. Indeed, the non-proliferation, anti-terrorism budget has ben cut by over $333 million – the majority of which helps countries prevent non-state actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction. So much for Trump’s proclamation that NATO is no longer obsolete due to its commitment to counter-terrorism.
One small caveat to this is the protection of funding for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation, and the International Monitoring System that monitors nuclear weapons testing, which falls under its jurisdiction, as well as increased funding for the International Atomic Energy Association. Both of these programmes weathered the cuts.
It is also dubious that funding appropriated to nuclear modernisation will actually reap benefits for NATO. The budget has largely continued the Obama era modernisation of the nuclear triad, yet at a higher cost. Costs have rose significantly for the modernisation of the B61-12 bombs and W88 warheads to be deployed on aircraft and submarines respectively. Yet, the budget offers only mundane explanations for unexplained ‘increases.’
One significant change in the budget is the acceleration of the Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) Weapons programme (nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles), which has seen its funding rise from from $95.6 million to $451.3 million and is due for development by 2022. These weapons are widely regarded endangering strategic stability with Russia, as there is no way of knowing whether the weapons are nuclear armed or not. Thus a non-nuclear attack could provoke a nuclear response. Former defence secretary William Perry has described the weapons as ‘beyond deterrence’ and deeply destabilising.
Despite the large increase in spending, there is little in the defence budget that will significantly enhance the Alliance. The overall Trump budget, if enacted, is likely to weaken it on balance. Increasing demands from Trump for European nations to cough up, when there is scant evidence that the US’ own spending promotes NATO’s priorities in a responsible fashion will endanger organisational cohesion. Increased military spending that destabilises strategic stability with Russia complemented by cuts to programmes that work on crisis management and cooperative security is a disaster waiting to happen.
There is an urgency to move beyond the logic that increased defence spending de-facto translates into a stronger alliance. NATO history has shown that the development and deployment of new capabilities, especially nuclear capabilities, can fracture Alliance cohesion. Current US budget decisions coupled with Trump’s ambivalence over the Alliance is something to worry about. An organisational shift is needed so that nations’ burden sharing is assessed according to individual nations’ contributions to NATO’s priorities, rather than by increased defence spending that could provoke an arms race with Russia and increase the chance of any conflict going nuclear. This approach would create a more flexible alliance that could more readily respond to the intersecting threats and crisis in and around NATO, and would create a much needed discussion on NATO’s future priorities.