The cost of NATO

  • 13 July 2018
  • NormanL

The president's visit with the members of the NATO alliance has, as expected, created a lot of waves. One issue that bothers the White House? The decades-old complaint that the U.S. is carrying most of NATO's defense burden. Here's some additional perspective on that issue from the EurAsia Group:

...important discussions about [NATO's] future are likely to be overshadowed by President Trump’s repeated calls for members to make good on their collective commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense.

Given all the attention, we can’t help asking: where did that number come from, and does it really matter? Here’s Gabe with some perspective:

The oft-touted 2 percent of GDP target was officially adopted as a collective NATO goal at a 2014 summit in Wales. The idea was to start a long-term process that would see European members carry more weight on defense at a time when the US was looking to expand its military commitments elsewhere in the world (read: Asia). The target is a goal, not a requirement, that the 29-member alliance has agreed to fulfil by 2024. Five countries currently satisfy it, and 16 are now on target to do so by 2024.

As an indicator of countries’ contributions, the two percent target has its limits. It’s a barometer of domestic spending, rather than direct contributions of troops or other support to specific NATO operations. And it offers little perspective on whether funds are funneled towards collective objectives – such as upgrading equipment or investing in new technologies – or largely spent on domestic concerns, like paying soldiers’ pensions. NATO members have also agreed to a lesser known, but arguably more important, goal to spend 20 percent of their defense budgets on major equipment upgrades and R&D of lasting value to the alliance.

American presidents have been pushing Europe to shoulder more of the defense burden for a very long time. They are slowly coming around to doing a bit more. But even when our allies finally reach their goals, the even larger question will still remain: what is NATO's mission?

It may still be guarding against Russia, which, depsite the president's assertions to the contrary, is not our friend, partner, or peer. It is an authoritatrian state bent on sowing dischord and doubt in the west...just as it did in the Soviet era. Is NATO's future role to contain it? We don't know. But giving NATO a mission that justifies continued U.S. spending, and a continued U.S. presence, must be made clear. 

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