US pressure a wake-up call for underspending NATO members
President Donald Trump stirred up controversy last week when he started off the NATO summit in Belgium by slamming fellow members for their meager financial contributions to the joint defense organization. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering that candidate Trump made similar comments when he was on the campaign trail in 2016. In fact, calling on NATO members to contribute more toward their own defense has been a common refrain from several US presidents. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both raised the issue with America’s allies. However, Trump has a chance to succeed where his predecessors failed because his tone is proving to be more forceful and he has demonstrated willingness during his 18 months in office to take bold actions against adversaries and allies alike.
Trump’s sometimes acrimonious and confrontational tone can be a shock to other world leaders, who are accustomed to more diplomatic approaches, at least in public. The president is counting on that shock to instill in the other NATO members the seriousness of his demands that they pay their share of the organization’s defense budget. Moreover, they have seen the hard stances he has taken against adversaries — Iran and North Korea in particular — and even against trading partners such as Canada, Mexico and Germany. NATO may still be important to him, but the president wants the other members to know that the US will not capitulate.
NATO, the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was conceived of as a military deterrent to the spread of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s. After World War II, Western European countries like Britain, France, Belgium and others found themselves in precarious economic and military situations as they struggled to rebuild their economies and physical infrastructure after the devastation wrought by Nazi Germany. The US, having suffered no domestic physical damage from the Germans, was well positioned to use its economic and military power to protect Europe and encourage the rebuilding of capitalist and democratic institutions.
Trump’s strong rhetoric may convince underspending NATO members it is time to contribute their share if they expect the US and others to defend them.Ellen R. Wald
In March 1948, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Britain and France signed the Treaty of Brussels, in which they pledged to work together to prevent economic conflict. This treaty was a direct response to the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and was the embryo for the NATO alliance that was formalized a year later. The North Atlantic Treaty included seven more nations, most importantly the US. The addition of America meant that it could be more than just an economic and political association — it could also be a military alliance.
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provided that the signatories agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” This was the crux of the alliance and represented a clear united defense force against the Soviet Union. In fact, the USSR formed its own military alliance with Eastern European communist states — called the Warsaw Pact — several years later. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, which was dissolved in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO continued and actually expanded after the Cold War ended. It now has 29 members.
Trump entered this latest NATO summit demanding that fellow members shoulder more of the financial burden of defending Europe and each other. He labeled most as “delinquent” on their payments because they spend less than 2 percent of their GDP on defense, in violation of NATO guidelines. Trump specifically called out Germany, which has the largest economy in Europe, for failing to contribute the minimum amount. In comparison, the US contributes what amounts to more than 3.5 percent of its GDP. The only other countries that currently meet or exceed the targets outlined in the NATO guidelines are the UK, Greece, Estonia and Poland. Some NATO countries contribute almost nothing, and Iceland actually has no standing army.
This inequality is not new. What is new is that Trump is using significantly harsher language than other presidents to try and compel NATO members to contribute a greater percentage to their own defense. He criticized Germany, insinuating that it acts against the organization since it purchases more than half of its natural gas from Russia and is supporting a pipeline that would make most of Europe similarly beholden to Russian gas. It is clear that Trump’s fellow NATO leaders were not happy with the president’s message. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, angrily said: “Dear America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don’t have that many.”
Some in the media and even at the meeting concluded that Trump seeks to end the 70-year alliance. This seems unlikely. As the meeting adjourned, there were plenty of pleasantries. According to Trump, member nations gave commitments to increase their contributions “substantially.”
After years of the US complaining about carrying the financial burden of NATO almost on its own, it is now possible that Trump’s strong rhetoric could convince these countries that it is time to contribute their share if they expect the US and others to perpetuate NATO and defend them.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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