Arab News

Trump’s Rhetoric on Defense Spending Is Not All Hot Air

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
Donald Trump speaks during a rally on February 14, 2024, in South Carolina. (Win McNamee via Getty Images)
Donald Trump speaks during a rally on February 14, 2024, in South Carolina. (Win McNamee via Getty Images)

Speaking at a campaign rally in South Carolina last week, Donald Trump claimed to have told an unidentified leading Euopean politician that he would encourage Russia to attack any member of NATO that did not meet the alliance’s target for spending on defense.

Leaving aside for the moment the highly debatable issue of whether this supposed encounter ever took place, it is no secret that Trump isn’t NATO’s biggest fan. During his first term as US president, he routinely questioned its relevance in the 21st century. He has also been a regular and vocal critic of Europe’s lack of spending on defense.

European parsimony has been an issue for decades. Successive US presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s have criticized Europeans for not spending enough on their armed forces, and adequate defense spending has been debated since the beginning of NATO. Article 3 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, the founding document of the alliance, states that members should, at a minimum, “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” Seventy-five years later, not all members can say they are doing so, a continuing frustration for US policymakers.

In the 1990s, after the Cold War, NATO members drastically decreased both defense spending and the size of their armed forces. However, after the 9/11 attacks and the geopolitical events that followed, it was clear that the so-called “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War was an illusion. Even so, NATO members failed to increase defense spending in any meaningful way.

The issue featured prominently at the NATO summit in Latvia in 2006, when alliance members agreed on a target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. As the years went by very few members took this target seriously. In 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea, only three NATO members met the benchmark: the US, the UK, and Greece. The annexation was a wake-up call. Members of the alliance recommitted to the 2 percent benchmark at a summit in Wales that year, this time with a deadline of 2024.

Now that 2024 is upon us, how has NATO fared? The results have been mixed. The good news is that since 2014 there has been real-terms increase in defense spending across Europe and Canada of more than €600 billion. Collectively, European NATO members spent about 1.5 percent of their combined GDP on defense. In 2024 this figure is expected to hit 2 percent. On the downside, only 18 of the 31 members of the alliance are expected to meet the 2 percent target this year on an individual basis. While this is a significant improvement on 2014, more needs to be done.

But what? There is no silver bullet, but some steps can be taken to help the alliance. First, NATO should encourage its members to enshrine into law a commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. This would provide consistency and predictability in the future.

Additionally, NATO needs to get the finance ministers of its member states involved in the discussion too. Foreign ministers, defense ministers, and heads of state and government routinely meet throughout the year for NATO ministerial gatherings and summits. In most European parliamentary democracies, the finance minister is influential and holds the purse strings. Getting finance ministers more involved will help them understand why defense is so expensive and why it is important.

Even though some won’t admit it, many European policymakers know that Trump is right, even if his supposed threat to give Russia free rein took his rhetoric to new heights of recklessness. It also played into the European anxiety about what a second Trump administration would mean for US-EU relations, the future of NATO, and continued support for Ukraine. Many in the US are comcerned too: the US Senate has passed bipartisan legislation that would prevent any future president from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO.

While the lack of defense spending in Europe is frustrating for US policymakers, the reality is that Europe is too important to the US economy for any American president to dismiss NATO as a lost cause. Europe is America’s largest source of foreign investment. Forty-five of the 50 states export more to Europe than they do to China, even Pacific-facing states such as California and Hawaii. NATO provides the security guarantee for Europe, which is America's largest export market. NATO creates the stability in Europe that allows for economic prosperity across the continent. This benefits the US economy and, by extension, the American worker. The war against Ukraine threatens to undermine Europe’s stability. In this context, NATO is just as important for the US as it was during the Cold War.

Instead of disengaging with NATO, the next US president should build on its success and keep encouraging Europeans to spend more on defense. NATO has underpinned security in the North Atlantic region for 75 years. With the right policies and the correct levels of military investment, it will continue being the world’s premier security alliance for the next 75 years.

Read in Arab News.