Once again President Trump’s stance on our European alliances has gotten him into a bit of trouble. He harshly criticized NATO, specifically Germany, for failing to live up to the alliance’s 2% defense spending guidelines. For good measure he added Germany to the list of countries who have supposedly unfairly benefited from US trade policy.
Despite the rhetoric, Trump’s position is nothing new. In 2011 then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke “bluntly” with NATO about the woeful state of Europe’s militaries. NATO itself has recognized the problem of most of its members not meeting the 2% threshold. While NATO has acknowledged this, getting the actual politicians from Lisbon, Sofia, and everywhere in-between to commit to defense increases has been more difficult.
Is Trump right when he says that NATO countries who refuse to spend 2% of GDP are harming the United States? They certainly are not helping, and we should welcome any alliance member who is willing to increase their expenditures to that 2% level. But this oversimplifies things. While the Europeans (and Canadians) may not spend as much on defense as we would like, it is fact that many alliance members saw their first combat deaths since World War II in Afghanistan. To therefore imply that Article V is up in the air is not only a gift to Moscow, but a stance that betrays every NATO service member who died after September 11.
This does not absolve European countries of their inadequate defense budgets, but it puts things in perspective. Asking Berlin to spend roughly $4 billion in additional defense expenditures should not be controversial. To put $4 billion in perspective, the two destroyers that launched Tomahawks into Syria in April combined cost roughly $3.6 billion. This would indicate that a slightly larger German military is not going to drastically change any future NATO military operations or current deployments. To add to the point Germany is one of NATO’s largest countries, and the effect of a slightly larger Belgian or Slovenian military would be even less noticeable.
While Trump’s attacks on our NATO allies is wrong, the Europeans have not helped their cause. Consider this tweet by Ian Bremmer:
OK, we deserve that. pic.twitter.com/Q7fc6qc9QY
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) May 29, 2017
If you want Americans to be willing to go over to Europe and fight a third massive war in 100 years, it is probably best for Europe to have a better strategy than calling Americans “children.” To make it worse, that tweet was sent out on Memorial Day, a day where we remember those who died for our country, including hundreds of thousands who died in two world wars for the freedom of Western Europe. This can remind one of Dean Rusk asking Charles de Gualle if his demand that American servicemen get out of France included the tens of thousands in French cemeteries.
Many Europeans will look down their noses at those stupid Americans who will bomb any country that looks at us funny, but those same Europeans then come begging us to live up to our commitments when the Bear awakens from over 20 years of hibernation. Like others throughout the world, they think we appoint ourselves the moral policeman of the world and are too quick to resort to bombing other countries for no good reason. Yet when trouble arises they wonder why we will not do something.
To diffuse the disagreements between Trump and NATO members there needs to be a mutual understanding that both parties have a point. If Europe wants the American public, rather than just the foreign policy establishment, to continue our traditional bipartisan support for NATO, then European parliaments are going to have to start living up to their word. It is not enough to promise increases in defense spending; eventually words need to give way to action.
Trump and those who echo him on NATO also could learn a few things. NATO has been a steady and predictable part of US foreign policy since the end of World War II. NATO allies give us access to bases within their countries that allow us to forwardly deploy in order to face any possible foe that may emerge. The war in Afghanistan saw NATO allies die in a war that was started by an attack on this country, to ignore that would do a great disservice to those men and women, regardless of what we think about their politicians.