EVERY decade or so, Americans ask themselves whether they are being taken advantage of by allies who are getting a ``free ride'' in the NATO alliance. The latest version of ``ally-bashing'' asserts that the United States provides a significantly larger share of its gross national product for national defense than its allies do. At the same time, the US appears to be losing the international economic war; critics are prompted to ask whether it should continue to bear such a large share of the mutual defense burden while being taken advantage of by its allies on world markets. But the reality of sharing the burden is far more complex than such political rhetoric suggests. Since the very start of the alliance, the US has never negotiated an agreement with its allies on exactly how each member will benefit or how the burden should be distributed.
Lacking a common yardstick, critics argue that with Europe's economic growth, US allies should now shoulder a larger share of the defense burden. The US's economic growth, however, has been about equal to that of its NATO allies since 1960, hardly changing the relative ability of the US and its allies to pay for defense.
Still, the usual measures of defense spending seem conclusive. US defense spending was 6.5 percent of GNP in 1986, while 3.7 percent of national growth was the average for the larger members of NATO (France, Italy, Britain, and West Germany). Other members averaged 2.9 percent. The US provided 69 percent of the alliance's total 1986 defense spending.
Yet such figures are misleading. The definition of ``defense spending'' in these comparisons includes the costs of non-NATO defense commitments. Spending totals are biased by including forces in areas where US allies have no treaty commitments to provide forces. It is hardly fair to disparage them for not doing something that the alliance has never formally agreed to do.
Further, US allies cannot be faulted for the consistency of their fiscal commitments to defense, given the US's uneven record. The US seems to place great importance on the target of 3 percent defense spending growth set by NATO in 1977 but fails to note that no NATO ally, including itself, has regularly achieved this goal. Canada and Luxembourg have met the target in six of the nine years from 1978 to 1986, while the US and Norway have met it only five times. The consistency of US allies is even more obvious in the years before the target was established. In the 17 years before 1978, the smaller NATO allies averaged an annual real growth rate in defense spending of 3 percent; the larger states averaged 1.9 percent. The US averaged only 0.1 percent.
Ultimately, arguments over alliance defense spending are inconclusive and inappropriate. The most important indicator of the alliance's common effort is its actual military capability: the troops, weapons, and equipment needed to provide deterrence and defense. In that respect US allies carry a substantial share of the military burden, well above their shares of alliance defense spending or economic resources. Including NATO-assigned military equipment based in the US, the NATO allies provide 53 percent of alliance tanks, 46 percent of alliance artillery, 54 percent of its combat aircraft, and 83 percent of its combat naval ships. Including all military personnel on both sides of the Atlantic, US allies provide 58 percent of those on active duty and 80 percent of the reserves. Virtually all of these numbers significantly surpass the allies' 46.4 percent share of total economic growth in the alliance.
Moreover, the allies that appear to be underspending often make a substantial contribution to ground combat firepower on the crucial central front in Europe. West Germany, for example, fields more than half as many units of firepower on the inner German border as does the US; yet it has less than half the ability to carry the NATO burden, measured in its share of alliance growth.
The US contributes a great deal fiscally to NATO; so do its allies. With respect to NATO's military capabilities, US allies also acquit themselves well. But the real issue is the future of the common security: the need to define military, diplomatic, and economic strategies carefully in concert with America's allies. This exercise might turn out to require more NATO-wide spending and military capability, or, through increased efficiency or arms control agreements, it may require a good deal less from all. But one thing is certain: Members of NATO must define their future security policies together. Throwing sand in allied faces is demonstrably undeserved and will make this task infinitely more difficult.
Gordon Adams is director of the Defense Budget Project in Washington, D.C. Eric Munz is a consultant there. They are authors of the project's forthcoming report ``Fair Shares: Bearing the Burden of the NATO Alliance.''