In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: evaluating Donald Trump’s comments regarding the U.S. commitment to NATO. This is The Two Minute Drill for April 8, 2016.
On the topic of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (“NATO”), Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said:
“NATO is costing us a fortune, and yes, we’re protecting Europe, but we’re spending a lot of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs has to be changed.” Interview with The Washington Post on March 21.
“NATO is unfair, economically, to us, to the United States. Because it really helps them more so than the United States, and we pay a disproportionate share.” Interview with The New York Times on March 26.
“We pay, number one, a totally disproportionate share of NATO. We’re spending the biggest, the lion share’s paid for by us, disproportionate to other countries.” Interview on ABC News’s “This Week” on March 27.
Is Trump right? Does the U.S. pay a disproportionate share for NATO?
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
Donald Trump prefers the company of dictators to that of other democrats. “You can make deals with those people,” he said of Russia. “I would have a great relationship with [Vladimir] Putin.” Of Europe, in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump wrote that “their conflicts are not worth American lives.” “Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually,” he wrote then. “And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use. Our allies don’t seem to appreciate our presence anyway.”
Trump has continued that rhetoric on the campaign trail.
One of the most frustrating things about Trump, however, is that despite his simplistic and hyperbolic language, he often fails to provide any context or guidance for his remarks. And in regards to his statements regarding the U.S. contribution to NATO, this uncertainty creates a conundrum. When he says that the U.S. pays “disproportionate to other countries,” it is unclear what he is talking about.
Is Trump talking about direct funding for the NATO organization? If that is the case, he’s wrong. “Direct contributions,” according to NATO itself, “are made to finance requirements of the Alliance that serve the interest of all 28 members – and are not the responsibility of any single member – such as NATO-wide air defence (sic) or command and control systems.”
These costs are “borne collectively, often using the principle of common funding.” Each countries share is calculated on the basis of Gross National Income – that is, the total domestic and foreign output claimed by residents of a country. This figure represents a small percentage of each member’s defense budget and is adjusted regularly. Currently, as calculated by Gross National Income, the U.S. share is about 22 percent, compared to about 15 percent for Germany, 11 percent for France, 10 percent for the United Kingdom, 8 percent for Italy, 7 percent for Canada, and so forth.
That may still sound like a lot, and it is. But contrary to Trump’s claim that the U.S. is spending “billions and billions” on NATO, Defense Department budget documents show the annual direct contribution is under $500 million a year.
On the other hand, is Trump talking about indirect spending on NATO? If that’s the case, he begins to have a point.
U.S. officials have long complained that other NATO members are not pulling their weight. President Obama, for example, recently asserted that some European allies are “free riders.” And even NATO, to its credit, has recognized this problem:
The volume of the US defense expenditure represents 73 per cent of the defense spending of the Alliance as a whole. This does not mean that the United States covers 73 percent of the costs involved in the operational running of NATO as an organisation (sic) . . . but it does mean that there is an over-reliance by the Alliance as a whole on the United States for the provision of essential capabilities . . . .
This imbalance, NATO concedes, has been an issue since the beginning of the alliance: “This imbalance has been a constant, with variations, throughout the history of the Alliance and more so since the tragic events of 11 September 2001, after which the United States significantly increased its defence (sic) spending.”
In recognition of this problem, NATO leaders agreed in 2014 to reverse the trend of declining defense budgets and have decided that (1) allies currently meeting their two percent guideline on defense spending should continue to do so, and (2) allies failing to meet their two percent guideline will halt any decline, aim to increase defense expenditure as GDP grows, and move toward the two percent guideline within a decade. There is evidence, particularly after increasingly hostile rhetoric and overt Russian military aggression, that the transatlantic gap on defense spending is already narrowing.
Still, however, for the foreseeable future it will remain the case that U.S. spending will exceed other NATO members. That’s mainly because the United States is a world power, and the fact that, per NATO regulations, there is no obligation for each and every country to contribute to the operation unless it is an Article 5 collective defense operation. But it’s also clear that more of the burden for the defense of Europe is falling on American shoulders.
Word Count: 714 (bust)
In case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. By any objective measure, the Republican party has become a front for ideological conservative extremism. And they have yet to pay a price for it. Read the Column for April 5, 2016.