The anxiety leading up to this week’s NATO summit is unusually intense, thanks in large part to President Trump’s fractious relationship with European allies. Trump’s political values are often in tension with that of his transatlantic counterparts, and the White House is inching ever closer to an all-out trade war with Europe and Canada, but the real drama of the NATO summit will center on Trump’s brash accusations of allied free-riding. He recently sent letters to many European capitals berating them for not meeting their pledge to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense.
In a post at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Lucie Béraud-Sudreau and Nick Childs try to push back on the notion that providing for European defense is all that costly for the United States. While it is true that the $602.8 billion the United States spent on its military in 2017 “was the equivalent of 70.1% of aggregate spending by all NATO member states,” this exaggerates the true cost, they argue.
Direct U.S. spending on European defense, by their estimate, is only about $30.7 billion in 2017 and $36 billion in 2018, or between 5.1% and 5.5% of the total U.S. defense budget.
How do they calculate this number? They tally up the cost of three things: (1) direct funding for NATO, including common procurements; (2) the costs of the U.S. military presence in Europe; and (3) U.S. foreign military assistance.
Now, $30-$40 billion every year is nothing to sniff at. That is an enormous chunk of change for an America that is $21 trillion in debt to be spending on the defense of a region that is remarkably rich, powerful, and safe.
The problem, however, is that this understates the true cost of America’s NATO commitments. It is misleading to count the U.S. contribution to NATO solely as a sum of direct annual costs. The tally should also account for the indirect cost of maintaining a military big enough to fulfill our security commitments in Europe. It must account for some share of the permanent force structure that would shift to the reserves, or disappear entirely, if the United States wasn’t pledged to treating an attack on Paris, France or Podgorica, Montenegro as synonymous with attacks on Paris, Texas, or Portland, Maine. This more inclusive count is very difficult if not impossible to calculate with precision, but it is more honest.
Moreover, if the debate about NATO burden sharing boils down to bickering over budget accounting, it would seem like proponents of the status quo are playing hide the ball. The object of U.S. foreign policy is to discourage other countries from spending more on defense. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Free riding is not a bug of U.S. grand strategy, it is a feature of it — a point made perhaps too candidly by the Manhattan Institute’s Claire Berlinski: “How is it, then,” she asks, “that suddenly, we’re consumed with rage that Europe is ‘taking advantage’ of us? How have we forgotten that this is the point of the system? We designed it this way...”
She’s right. As Hal Brands, one of the leading scholarly proponents of America’s post-war grand strategy, explains in his book American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump, the United States provides “protection that allows other countries to underbuild their militaries.” Or, as Christopher Layne writes in his book The Peace of Illusions, Washington “used NATO…to foreclose the possibility that the West European states would re-nationalize their security policies.”
If America is going to have a debate about security guarantees, it must be an informed one. It should not rest on downplaying the true costs of such policies, nor should it pretend that free riding is some kind of mistake. It seems rather futile to defend the strategy by arguing against its very logic.
The author thanks Christopher A. Preble and Caroline Dorminey for input on this post.
Ad hominem has always been a feature of politics, but Senator John McCain (R-AZ) elevated it to a new level earlier this week. The incident occurred when McCain came to the Senate floor to ask for unanimous consent to move forward on a vote formally bringing Montenegro, a small country in the Balkans, into the NATO alliance. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) objected. McCain responded by suggesting Paul was a traitor to his country and accusing him of “working for Vladimir Putin.”
McCain seemed particularly incensed that Paul objected without explaining his reasons. As reported at the Daily Beast:
“I note the senator from Kentucky leaving the floor without justification or any rationale for the action he has just taken. That is really remarkable, that a senator blocking a treaty that is supported by the overwhelming number—perhaps 98, at least, of his colleagues—would come to the floor and object and walk away.”
He then directly connected Paul to the Russian government: “The only conclusion you can draw when he walks away is he has no justification for his objection to having a small nation be part of NATO that is under assault from the Russians.
“So I repeat again, the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”
Paul later issued a statement in response:
“Currently, the United States has troops in dozens of countries and is actively fighting in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen (with the occasional drone strike in Pakistan)…In addition, the United States is pledged to defend 28 countries in NATO. It is unwise to expand the monetary and military obligations of the United States given the burden of our $20 trillion debt.”
That seems like a reasonable position to hold, and certainly not one that requires Paul to be a Russian stooge.
Indeed, many of America’s most reputable officials and academics have opposed post-Cold War NATO expansion for substantive reasons. George Kennan, perhaps our most famous Cold War diplomat and widely considered to be the father of the United States’ containment strategy, famously opposed NATO expansion in the 1990s, writing in the New York Times that expanding NATO would be a “fateful error” that would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and “restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations.” Like Senator Paul, Kennan also worried about the problems of credibility and overextension. Would McCain accuse Kennan of treason?
In 1995, a group of almost two dozen retired Foreign Service, State Department, and Department of Defense officers who served during the Cold War signed an open letter opposing NATO expansion on grounds similar to Paul and Kennan. They argued it risked exacerbating instability and “convincing most Russians that the United States and the West are attempting to isolate, encircle, and subordinate them.” The signatories included Paul H. Nitze, former Secretary of the Navy and Deputy Secretary of Defense, as well as Jack F. Matlock, Jr., former Ambassador to the USSR, and John A. Armitage, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs. Were these gentlemen also secret Russian moles?
Within the academic international relations literature, there are a host of reasons to be skeptical of the wisdom of NATO expansion. Contrary to advocates of expansion, there is little reason to believe NATO expansion spreads democracy. Furthermore, scholars widely acknowledge that, in an attempt to expand Western security cooperation and deter Russian assertiveness in Eastern Europe, NATO expansion feeds Russian insecurities and provokes Moscow to take actions to preserve its sphere of influence in its near abroad. As Jonathan Masters of the Council on Foreign Relations explains, Putin cited NATO expansion to justify Russia’s military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, a “clear signal of Moscow's intentions to protect what it sees as its sphere of influence.”
Beyond the classic security dilemma, NATO expansion does not serve U.S. interests. Expanding security commitments to more European states puts U.S. credibility on the line with little to no strategic benefits in return. What happens in Montenegro does not affect our security as a nation, except that by taking on additional responsibilities to defend other countries, we risk being sucked into unnecessary conflicts that could otherwise be avoided. As MIT’s Barry Posen explains, “Once committed to defend allies everywhere, a state becomes obsessed with its political and military prestige, and vulnerable to the claim that ‘small’ wars must be fought in the hope of deterring large ones. This is especially true when the actual strategic value of these allies is modest.”
Notwithstanding Russia’s reprehensible actions in places like Georgia and Ukraine, Europe is a relatively benign security environment that doesn’t need to be under the American security umbrella. To the extent that Europe needs military capabilities to deter Russian aggression, the region is rich and powerful enough to provide for its own security.
It would be a shame if sensible, earnest, and well-informed perspectives continue to be shut out of the debate by slanderous accusations that opposition to NATO expansion is a signpost for treason.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly complained that the United States carries too much of the economic and military burden in NATO. He has even gone so far as to call the European alliance "obsolete" and to suggest that his administration might not fulfill the treaty's Article 5 obligation that commits NATO countries to come to the defense of any member that is attacked (Note: administration officials have repeatedly sought to reassure NATO allies that we remain committed to the collective defense of Europe, and Trump has contradicted himself on this score).
Many think this provocative rhetoric is just a ploy to get our NATO allies, who habitually underspend on defense and free-ride on America's security guarantees, to pay more of their fair share of the burden. At the Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, Andrea Gilli argues this approach is unlikely to jolt NATO allies into spending more on defense, though. Among other reasons, most NATO allies "face financial and political constraints to increasing military expenditure" in part because U.S. security assurances "have freed up state funds in Europe for other priorities, including a robust system of social services." And since cutting welfare benefits is typically a political non-starter, we shouldn't necessarily expect NATO countries to boost defense spending due to Trump's abrasive rhetoric.
But the historical record seems to contradict Gilli's argument. According to the RAND Corporation, Europe has historically spent between 43 percent and 78 percent of U.S. spending on defense. The ratio reached its peak in 1980, and then again in 2000 - years that were at the tail end of periods of defense budget cuts. And according to the RAND report, one of the the most successful techniques in getting NATO allies to share more of the burden was "threats by Congress to withdraw its troops from Europe."
The only period of signficant real growth in European defense spending was during the 1970s; otherwise European defense expenditure has been remarkably flat in real terms...
Historically, efforts to create incentives or to manage the burden-sharing problem have taken four different approaches. The first approach (1966 to the mid-1980s) was based on the threat of U.S. troop withdrawals. With a series of resolutions and amendments from 1966 to 1975, Senator Mike Mansfield sought to use the threat of U.S. troop withdrawals to force Europe to contribute more and to lessen U.S. costs. As noted, that effort—plus other factors relating to economic growth and the Soviet threat—may have had a positive effect: European defense spending grew by 44 percent between 1970 and 1984.
Certainly other factors contributed to this period of growth in NATO burden sharing - higher rates of economic growth, increased perceptions of the Soviet threat, defense budget cuts as we withdrew from Vietnam, etc. But U.S. threats to pare back its commitment to the region seem to have had a significant impact.
That said, European defense spending may never reach the levels that the Trump administration, or for that matter the Washington foreign policy community generally, would prefer. And while U.S. security guarantees are surely one reason for this, it also may be the case that European countries aren't boosting defense spending levels because they don't face any major threats. Increasing defense spending to 2 percent of GDP or higher won't do much about the terrorism problem European countries face. And the supposed geopolitical threat from Russia, meddling in Georgia and Ukraine aside, is consistently exaggerated.
Throughout the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump’s attitude toward NATO has engendered significant consternation throughout both Europe and the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Although the president-elect has not explicitly advocated pulling out of the NATO, he has suggested that the United States should rethink its involvement since the United States continues to bear a disproportionate share of the defense burden within the alliance. The incoming administration could thus be poised to conduct the sort of “agonizing reappraisal” that John Foster Dulles threatened 63 years ago. Although a complete withdrawal from NATO would be unwise, the time to redefine the United States’ role in the alliance may have arrived.
Critics have attempted to undermine Trump’s intimation that he might refrain from defending NATO allies such as Estonia by suggesting that the United States is treaty-bound to do so. The day after Trump’s election, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, insisted that “NATO’s security guarantee is a treaty commitment…All allies have made a solemn commitment to defend each other. This is something absolutely unconditioned.” But that is only true to a certain extent. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty stipulates that in the event of an attack against a NATO member state, each ally “will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” The key phrase “as it deems necessary” gives the United States a great deal of latitude.
Were the North Atlantic Council to invoke Article V in response to a Russian incursion into Estonia, for instance, the United States could fulfill its treaty obligations in any number of ways. The Pentagon could certainly deploy the U.S. military to combat Russian forces directly. On the other hand, the United States could restrict its role to the provision of military equipment and logistical support to its European allies. To borrow a phrase from Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States could serve as the great arsenal of NATO.
Some would argue, however, that although Article V does not legally obligate the United States to deploy military forces in defense of its NATO allies, such a response would be essential to preserve American credibility. In other words, if the United States failed to defend its NATO allies against Russian aggression, all of the United States’ other allies around the globe would begin to doubt whether they could really depend upon the United States. Yet U.S. credibility would only suffer if Washington were to maintain an expectation of U.S. intervention and subsequently failed to fulfill that expectation.
If the incoming Trump administration is serious about reducing its commitment to NATO, its first priority should therefore be to eliminate the expectation that the United States would automatically intervene militarily in defense of its NATO allies. For that expectation is the root of the inequitable distribution of the defense burden within NATO. Why should the European allies invest significantly in defense if they can count on the United States to guarantee their security? Rather than maintaining an implicit commitment to spearhead any defense of NATO territory (particularly in Eastern Europe), the Trump administration could make it clear to the allies that the United States will serve as a balancer of last resort in Europe. In other words, the European allies will bear primary responsibility for the defense of Europe; the United States will only intervene in dire circumstances if they are unable to defend themselves (much like during the two world wars).
Redefining the United States’ commitment to its NATO allies in such a manner would need to be accomplished gradually, however. After years of underinvestment, European militaries suffer from significant deficiencies. Heavy land forces, in particular, have atrophied substantially since the end of the Cold War. Germany’s fleet of Leopard 2 main battle tanks has declined from 2,020 in 1990 to only 306 in 2015. Over that same period, the British and French tank fleets have each also shrunk from over 1,300 to about 200.
In the long run, however, Europe certainly has the wherewithal to ensure its own defense. In 2015, the combined GDP of Britain, France, and Germany totaled nearly $8.6 trillion—seven times that of Russia. With 210 million people, those three allies command a population 1.5 times that of Russia—and significantly healthier. Since the economies of Western Europe are also much more technologically advanced than that of Russia, the European allies are capable of constructing robust, technologically-advanced military forces capable of defending against Russian aggression.
To give the European allies time to construct such military forces, the Trump administration could delineate a timetable for the phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe. The first phase could focus on the withdrawal of the U.S. forces that the Obama administration has deployed to Eastern Europe as part of the European Reassurance Initiative, essentially in violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. While encouraging European allies to step up and shoulder more of the defense burden in Europe, such an action would constitute an important first step in alleviating Moscow’s concerns that the United States is intent upon isolating and encircling Russia. After pulling back from NATO’s frontier in Eastern Europe, the United States could gradually reduce its military presence in Western Europe over the next decade.
One problem with a phased withdrawal would be its reversibility. Since the timeline for such retrenchment would extend beyond a single presidential term, a potential Trump successor could easily halt of reverse such a policy. Yet that possibility should not encourage the new administration to undertake a risky, immediate withdrawal from Europe. A phased U.S. military withdrawal from Europe would be a more prudent choice.
America collects allies like Americans collect Facebook friends. As a result, Washington defends more than a score of prosperous European states, several leading Asian nations, and a gaggle of Middle Eastern regimes.
Yet most of the countries on the Pentagon dole appear to be perpetually unhappy, constantly demanding reassurance of Washington’s love. Their sense of entitlement exceeds that of the typical trust fund baby.
As a result, the U.S. is expected to protect virtually every prosperous, populous, industrialized nation. But that’s just a start. Washington also must coddle and otherwise placate the same countries.
Once great powers, they now believe it to be America’s duty to handle their defense. Alas, U.S. officials are only too willing to enable this counterproductive behavior.
Except for Donald Trump.
There is much to say about his candidacy, most of it bad. Nevertheless, he’s right not to be interested in reassuring allies.
Which has horrified the gaggle of well-to-do nations on America’s defense dole. For instance, the New York Times reported “an undercurrent of quiet desperation” among European officials. They went to Hillary Clinton’s campaign begging for, yes, reassurance!
As for Washington’s major Asian defense dependents, Bloomberg explained that they found Trump’s views “baffling.” The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily proclaimed itself to be “dumbfounded.”
Alas, both Republicans and Democrats rushed to promise well-heeled allies that they shouldn’t lose any sleep over Trump’s message, that nothing will change. Indeed, the Times reported European leaders visiting the Democratic convention, where they found the message “soothing.”
Washington officials have lost sight of why America should participate in an alliance. Alliances should be a means to an end.
Their purpose is to increase American security. They aren’t particularly useful where there’s no significant threat to the U.S., Washington can easily deter any adversary on its own, and/or America’s friends are capable of protecting their own interests. Which is the case for most U.S. allies today.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is a nasty fellow, but has demonstrated no interest in challenging America militarily. And while Moscow deploys a capable armed forces, it would lose in a contest with the U.S.
Moreover, the Russian republic, like the old empire, is primarily focused on border security and respect, not conquering non-Russian peoples. Anyway, Europe has a larger economy and population than America, and far larger than Russia. Europe has chosen to remain seemingly helpless.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is an unpleasant actor, but is interested in America only because America, in the form of 28,500 military personnel, is next door in the South. Yet South Korea enjoys a vast economic and technological lead, overwhelming international and diplomatic advantage, and sizeable population edge over the North. Seoul long ago should have graduated from America’s defense dole.
China, like Russia, is a regional power unlikely to seek war with America, which enjoys a large military lead. Japan, which long possessed the world’s second largest economy, could have done much more to advance its and its region’s defense for years. Even today Tokyo is well able to deter any Chinese threat to the former’s existence.
No Middle Eastern state directly threatens the U.S. America’s friends are dominant: Israel is a regional superpower, Saudi Arabia vastly outspends Iran on the military, and Turkey’s armed forces, despite the aftermath of the coup attempt, outrange those of all of its neighbors, aside from Russia, which has no cause for conflict.
As I point out in American Conservative: “Why is the U.S. providing all of these nations security commitments, military equipment, and promises to go to war? And reassuring governments desperately afraid that they might have to do more for their own defense? Instead, Washington should insist that its friends take over responsibility for their own security.”
It’s impossible to predict what Donald Trump would do as president. However, he might be willing to put muscle behind bluster and kick nations off of the U.S. defense dole.
Once again Donald Trump has shocked the foreign policy establishment. He suggested that maybe the U.S. should no longer defend its prosperous, populous allies in Europe.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization made sense when created in 1949. War-ravaged Western Europe faced an aggressive Soviet Union. The American defense shield allowed Washington’s allies to recover and rebuild.
Nearly seven decades later the alliance has become a means rather than an end. The world has changed, yet Washington continues to guarantee the security of its 27 (soon to be 28) NATO allies (as well as Japan, South Korea, and others). Yet only four European nations bother to devote even two percent of GDP to the military, barely half America’s level.
Trump sees this as just a free-riding problem. He said he’d like to keep the alliance, but doesn’t know if it’s possible. “Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make,” he complained.” He “would prefer not to walk,” but if the Europeans don’t “fulfill their obligations to us,” perhaps Washington shouldn’t defend them.
A predictable firestorm erupted about America keeping its word and reassuring allies. The Trump campaign appeared to retreat ever so slightly: aide Sam Clovis downplayed the candidate’s remarks: “We just want people to follow the rules. We’re putting a marker out there.” Trump told the Washington Post: NATO is a “good thing to have” and “I don’t want to pull it out.”
Alas, Trump fundamentally misperceives the real problem. As I argue on Forbes: “The issue is not burden-sharing, getting the Europeans to do more. It is burden-shedding, turning responsibility over to the Europeans. There no longer is any geopolitical justification for America to defend Europe.”
The only potential serious threat facing Europe is Russia, and even that fear is overblown. Vladimir Putin’s behavior is egregious, but he’s shown no interest in dominating or conquering distant territories peopled by non-ethnic Russians.
In any case, Europe enjoys a population advantage approaching three-to-one and economic lead of nearly ten-to-one over Russia. Europe has a larger population and economy than America. Even today Europe spends two to three times as much as Russia on the military.
Why should the U.S. maintain the status quo?” America gets a lot out of the alliance, argue representatives of the countries being defended. Jens Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister who now serves as alliance secretary general claimed that “we defend one another,” pointing to European contributions in Afghanistan. But these are far less than America’s role in that nation, and far less costly than bearing most of the burden in confronting nuclear-armed Russia.
The U.S. is interested in the continent’s security and stability, it is said. Of course, but the Europeans have an even greater interest. Yet they lack an incentive to act if America promises to take care of their problems.
Moreover, there’s an even better case for the Europeans to subsidize America’s defense. After all, the continent is vitally interested in U.S. well-being. Why don’t the well-heeled Europeans subsidize American security?
Washington uses bases in Europe for its misbegotten activities in the Middle East, contend some NATO enthusiasts. But America would be much more secure if it didn’t intervene so promiscuously and disastrously. Anyway, it’s possible to negotiate base access without promising to inaugurate nuclear war on behalf of the host country.
As for Trump’s complaints, increasing Europe’s outlays would not suddenly make it in America’s interest to defend that continent. Nor would any increase be sustainable. Most Europeans perceive little threat, and thus little justification, for additional military outlays.
As I observe in Forbes: “No one should mistake Donald Trump as a great strategic thinker. But when it comes to foreign policy he exhibits more common sense than the usual gaggle of establishment politicians, starting with Hillary Clinton. NATO has outlived its usefulness. The U.S. should turn over defense responsibility for Europe to Europe.”
Turkey’s brief democratic moment is ending. The rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Development and Justice Party (AKP) in 2002 signaled the collapse of the militarized secular republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The recent failed coup effectively killed the semi-liberal democracy that briefly replaced Kemalism.
NATO is an anachronism and Ankara’s membership even more so. Today Turkey undermines U.S. and European security. As Ankara moves toward an authoritarian one-party state, a civil divorce would be best for all parties.
Erdogan began as the reformer Turkey had spent decades waiting for. He was supported by liberals hoping for a more democratic and open society. Europeans saw Erdogan as the man to take Turkey into the European Union.
And he delivered, at least until the AKP won its third consecutive election in 2010. Then he began moving in an unmistakably authoritarian direction.
Corruption spread, but police and prosecutors who asked too many questions were replaced. Military officers and others were convicted of fantastic charges based on fabricated evidence. Journalism became a risky profession, with entire media companies seized by his government. Thousands criticizing the president were prosecuted.
Erdogan also abandoned the ceasefire he had negotiated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, winning votes from nationalists. Ankara attempted to drag the U.S. into the conflict against the Assad government while accommodating the Islamic State as it conquered territory and terrorized captive residents. Last fall his government threatened to spread the conflict by shooting down a Russian aircraft for briefly violating Turkish airspace.
Erdogan redoubled domestic repression after the failed putsch, treating it as the equivalent of the Reichstag fire for the Nazis, an excuse to launch a country-wide crackdown. The Great Purge obviously was prepared well in advance. The regime arrested, fired, or suspended tens of thousands of state officials and private employees. The regime also seized or closed foundations, schools, labor groups, universities, newspapers, and online publications.
As Turkey descends more deeply into repression and conflict, its value to NATO decreases. Ankara’s 1952 membership is a Cold War artifact. The Soviet Union no longer exists and there is no evidence that Moscow plans to stage a blitzkrieg through the Balkans, let alone to the Atlantic Ocean.
Russia’s brutal treatment of Georgia and Ukraine is essentially defensive against an expanding NATO, not offensive in attempting to recreate the Soviet empire. There is no renewed Russian threat for Turkey to combat.
Turkey’s primary military benefit to Washington is access to Incirlik airbase, which is not in fact contingent on Ankara being part of NATO. Moreover, the Erdogan government’s cooperation is not guaranteed even today.
As I point out in Forbes, “Turkey probably would not even qualify for alliance membership today. It is engulfed in multiple conflicts largely of its own making. The extraordinarily brutal military campaign in the 1980s and 1990s against the large Kurdish minority could have induced Western intervention had the culprit not been a member of NATO. Now the conflict burns anew.”
Moreover, early in the civil war the Erdogan government backed the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attempted to drag the U.S. into the horrid imbroglio. The Turkish government also aided the rise of the Islamic State by turning a blind eye to the latter’s cross-border activities, a decision which backfired badly after the group launched terrorist attacks.
At the same time, Turkey no longer meets the democracy and human rights standards for new members. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Ankara against moving away from the alliance’s “requirement with respect to democracy” in the aftermath of the coup.
NATO was willing to overlook such blemishes in the past, but today’s descent to authoritarianism is much harder to accept. In fact, the regime is distancing itself from the West, with some officials even blaming Washington for the coup.
The collapse of Turkish democracy is a tragedy for Turkey’s citizens and a problem for other nations. Turkey’s voluntary departure from NATO would best serve America’s and Europe’s interests.