NATO: Does old squabble over costs mask US shift away from Europe?

Ints Kalnins/Reuters
A US Air Force F-16 fighter approaches a KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft during the US-led Saber Strike exercise in the air over Estonia, June 6, 2018.

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Donald Trump is not the first US president to maintain that European member nations, many of them wealthy, are not paying their fair share of NATO's costs. Even Barack Obama chided them as “free riders.” A larger question for Americans, though, is whether NATO is still relevant today. Some national security experts concur with President Trump’s campaign pronouncement that NATO has outlived its purpose and is too bureaucratic and unwieldy. Others say the United States gets more than what it pays for: partners for its far-flung military operations and a global order on which America’s prosperity rests. “In that sense it’s been and still is an excellent bargain for the American taxpayer,” says Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Still, it's not so much Trump’s rhetoric over burden-sharing but a much broader questioning of the value of the alliance that has Europeans worried: the idea, says Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund, “that this president, instead of really caring that much about what European allies are spending on defense, just doesn’t see Europe and the alliance built with them as central to American geopolitical interests.”

Why We Wrote This

US presidents have long wrestled with the question, Is NATO worth it? A consensus might be: Yes, though Europe should pay more. But leaders there worry that something more fundamental is at play.

When President Trump told a rally in Montana last week that Americans are “schmucks” for carrying the defense burden of wealthy European countries, he set the stage for another contentious meeting with US allies at the NATO summit here Wednesday.

But the bit of coarse presidential hyperbole also raised anew a question that has nagged US presidents since the end of the cold war. It’s a question that has only sharpened under an “America first” president who broadly questions the many multilateral arrangements the United States has led since World War II.

In short, it’s this: Is NATO worth it? Do American taxpayers, and what Trump refers to as the American “piggy bank,” get their money’s worth for participating in and indeed leading Europe’s defense?

Why We Wrote This

US presidents have long wrestled with the question, Is NATO worth it? A consensus might be: Yes, though Europe should pay more. But leaders there worry that something more fundamental is at play.

Some national security experts concur with Trump’s campaign pronouncement that NATO is “obsolete,” insisting that the 29-nation organization has outlived its purpose and is too bureaucratic and unwieldy. The legitimate common threats the alliance members face, they say, could be more efficiently met through less costly coalitions of willing partners, depending on the particular threat being addressed.

But many others say that the US, as the world’s sole superpower, gets more than what it pays for out of an alliance that provides it with partners for its far-flung military operations – Afghanistan is one example – and that buttresses a Western-led global order on which America’s prosperity rests.

Europe’s wealthy countries should indeed pay their “fair share” (as Trump says) of the cost of this bulwark of transatlantic stability and prosperity, these other experts say – but that doesn’t negate the good deal they see the US getting from NATO.

“NATO is probably the best military alliance in history, there’s not much doubt that the United States would be less secure and less prosperous if it had to do on its own what it has been able to do collectively with its NATO allies,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “In that sense it’s been and still is an excellent bargain for the American taxpayer.”

But being a “good deal” for Americans doesn’t change the reality that NATO is also a “bad deal in the sense that we are paying more than our fair share,” Mr. O’Hanlon adds. “On that part Donald Trump is right – but it’s also true he’s not the first American president to point this out.”

Doubts about the need for a cold-war military alliance blossomed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the brief advent of the “end of history” period. The 9/11 attacks – and more recently Western fears of a revanchist Russia – quieted much of the questioning of NATO’s continued existence.

The US burden

But at the same time the alliance’s newfound purpose prompted both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to demand of European allies that they reverse steady declines in defense spending and take on more of the burden of meeting the new security challenges.

Mr. Obama even chided America’s NATO allies as “free riders.”

Critics of the North Atlantic alliance like to point out that US military expenditures account for about 70 percent of NATO members’ total military spending. Others call this a misleading figure, since the US as a superpower has global reach and ambitions well beyond those of its NATO partners.

More to the point, says O’Hanlon, is the fact that while Europe’s collective gross domestic product is slightly higher than that of the US, its military spending is less than half that of the US. While the US spends more than 3 percent of GDP on defense, only 8 of NATO’s 29 members are expected this year to reach the alliance goal of each member spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024.

Germany, Europe’s largest economy, spends just over 1 percent of GDP on defense. Indeed, it was the news from Germany’s defense minister that Europe’s economic powerhouse, while increasing military spending annually, would reach only 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024 that appears more than anything to have set off Trump’s tirade against NATO allies.

On the other hand, analysts in Europe are quick to point out that US pressures have gotten results.

Mindaugas Kulbis/AP/File
A German soldier drives a Marder 1A4/3 military vehicle at the Sestokai railway station some 109 miles west of the capital Vilnius, Lithuania, Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.

Value of the alliance

Recent studies show Europe to be the region of the world with the fastest-rising defense budgets – a title long held by the Middle East – says Tomas Valasek, a former NATO ambassador for the Slovak Republic who is now director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

“The defense core of the alliance is surprisingly healthy, more NATO members are taking on new duties, and perhaps most important, one could argue that the ability to convince somebody like Russia not to do something foolish against any member of the alliance has never been better,” Mr. Valasek says. “The role NATO plays in preventing that kind of destabilizing conflict has to be worth quite a lot to the US,” he adds.

Moreover, he points out that NATO in recent years has deployed Forward Defense Battlegroups in the three Baltic counties and Poland – one of which, in Lithuania, is led by Germany, a development Valasek deems “politically remarkable.”

Still, some analysts say it is not so much Trump’s fractious rhetoric over military spending and unfair burden-sharing, but a much broader questioning of the value of the transatlantic alliance to the US, that has European leaders worried.

“What’s troubling is not that the American president is pressuring European allies on spending, that’s an old story,” says Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels. “What has many people anxious is the much more worrisome possibility that this president, instead of really caring that much about what European allies are spending on defense, just doesn’t see Europe and the alliance built with them as central to American geopolitical interests.”

Adds Mr. Lesser, “What more people are wondering is if what we are witnessing might be the end of America’s 100-year-old pivot to Europe.”

Defending wealthy countries

However it is not just the current occupant of the White House, but some national security analysts as well who question the value of NATO to the US.

“Yes, in my humble opinion, NATO is obsolete, maybe more like a zombie – dead but still walking,” says Michael Desch, director of the International Security Center at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

In Dr. Desch’s view, the problem with NATO is not so much what it costs the US, but how its structure, with the US at its helm, discourages European countries from matching their powerful economies with a defense that would allow them to stand on their own feet.

“It’s not that the spending is going to break our bank, nor is it that we are getting nothing for our money,” says Desch – who considers Trump’s red-meat rhetoric about allies at political rallies and the president’s mixing of transatlantic security issues with trade differences “ham-handed at best.” The problem he sees “is that we are spending a lot to defend wealthy countries that face a threat nowhere near what it was at the time of the cold war.”

Yes, he adds, the US is doing some important things with European allies, but in his view it’s nothing that requires keeping up a bureaucratic structure “that has outlived its purpose.”

NATO defenders say that kind of thinking far underestimates Russia’s aggressiveness and the threats that failing to stand up to Russian provocations in Eastern Europe could eventually pose to US peace and prosperity. Moreover, they say, it overlooks the post-cold-war tasks NATO has taken on in counterterrorism and in stabilization efforts, including armed forces training and development in Afghanistan and the southern Mediterranean region.

This week’s summit is set to approve a new NATO training mission for the Iraqi military.

Not 'normal times'

But NATO backers acknowledge that positions like those espoused by Desch seem to be closer to the president’s thinking on the uncertain value to the US of a military alliance like NATO.

Valasek of Carnegie Europe says the irony he sees is that this week’s NATO summit is set to formalize a number of collective-defense initiatives that under normal conditions could demonstrate the alliance’s value – including to US taxpayers. For example, NATO leaders will put their stamp on a new deterrence plan aimed at boosting the capacity to deliver forces in short order to back up the forward-defense battalions – a measure intended to reassure NATO’s eastern-most members and to deter Russia.

But for the transatlantic alliance, these are not “normal times,” he says. The problem that is dawning on European leaders is not a US president haranguing them to spend more, he says, but a US president who “may not see Europe’s defense as a core American interest.”

“I’m beginning to think that the NATO allies’ spending is just a red herring, that it doesn’t really matter what the Europeans spend on defense,” Valasek says. “What matters is that whatever else we do in this alliance between America and Europe, we know that the president’s heart is not in it.”

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