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Trump Must Stand His Ground with NATO

26 Mar 2017

Ted Galen Carpenter

President Trump’s tense meeting with German chancellor
Angela Merkel confirmed that he is serious about insisting on
greater financial burden sharing within NATO. Not only did the
president criticize Germany’s continuing failure to meet the
commitment that alliance members made following the 2006 summit
meeting to spend a minimum of 2 percent of their gross domestic
product on defense, but he added another barb. Trump stated that
Merkel’s government owed NATO (and, by implication, the
United States as NATO’s leader) “vast sums” of
money for the prior years that Germany failed to meet the 2 percent
target. German officials flatly rejected both his
demand and his reasoning, even arguing that difference in the
relative expenditures of alliance members should not really matter
to the collective defense effort.

This was hardly the first time that a U.S. administration has
pressed for greater burden sharing from NATO’s European
members.
As I’ve noted previously
, Dwight Eisenhower’s
secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, threatened to conduct an
“agonizing reappraisal” of Washington’s
commitment to Europe’s security if allies did not do more.
More recently, Barack Obama’s secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, warned that European nations must
increase their defense efforts, or domestic support for
America’s NATO obligations would be in jeopardy.

U.S. officials undercut their own warnings, however, by
simultaneously stressing the importance of Europe’s security to
America’s own. When those officials habitually asserted that the
continent’s well-being was not merely an important U.S. interest,
but a vital one, European leaders understandably dismissed the
accompanying warnings as lacking credibility. They either ignored
the demand for greater burden sharing or (as in 2006) made paper
promises for a greater effort, which they then promptly
violated.

Trump should make good on
his word and cut off NATO allies that refuse to pull their
weight.

Alan Tonelson, a former associate editor with Foreign
Policy
, aptly identified the inherent futility of Washington’s
burden-sharing approach
.

U.S. leaders never gave the Europeans sufficient incentive to
assume greater relative military responsibilities. The incentive
was lacking, in turn, because Washington never believed it could
afford to walk away from NATO or even reduce its role, if the
allies stood firm. Worse, U.S. leaders repeatedly telegraphed that
message to the Europeans—often in the midst of burden-sharing
controversies.

There have been intriguing hints that the Trump administration
might be more serious than its predecessors about pushing the
allies for greater defense outlays. During the campaign, Trump
himself stated that the United States must be willing to let the Europeans defend themselves if they
remained unresponsive, although he emphasized that he did not
prefer that option. This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
indicated that he did not plan to attend the meeting of NATO
foreign ministers in April. Such an apparent snub sent shock waves
through the NATO community, since it seemed to convey a message
that NATO was not an especially important issue on Washington’s
foreign-policy agenda. That implication was strengthened because
Tillerson planned instead to visit Russia at that time
and also focus on preparations for a summit meeting with Chinese
president Xi Jinping.

However, the Trump administration, like its predecessors, seems
determined to undermine its own burden-sharing campaign. Tillerson
is already beating a hasty retreat, indicating that he might be
able to reschedule the trip to Russia and attend the NATO conclave
after all. Both Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis had
previously muddied their burden-sharing message at the February
Munich security conference by simultaneously stressing the
alliance’s critical importance to the United States and
Washington’s undying devotion to transatlantic solidarity.

It was one thing to argue that NATO was essential to America’s
own security during the Cold War—especially the first decade
or so of that long struggle—but Europe’s security environment
has changed beyond recognition. Today, most of Washington’s
concerns about possible threats are located well outside the
European theater. Moreover, the European powers are prosperous and
should be capable of managing their own security and the overall
stability of their region. Equating Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a
declining regional power with an economy the size of Spain’s, to
the threat that the Soviet Union and its satellite empire once
posed to a demoralized Europe still recovering from World War II’s
devastation, strains credulity to the breaking point.

Indeed, there is an inherent contradiction between the tendency
of NATO’s European members to hype the “Russian
threat,” and the defense efforts they are willing to put
forth. Germany, democratic Europe’s economic and political
leader, spends a pathetic 1.2 percent of GDP on defense. Even
NATO’s easternmost members, those countries that would be on
the frontlines of a conflict with Russia, don’t do much better. Although Estonia
and Poland barely meet the 2 percent threshold (the latter for the
first time last year), the other countries lag far behind. Latvia
spends 1.45 percent; Lithuania, 1.49 percent; Romania, 1.48
percent; Bulgaria, 1.35 percent; Slovakia, 1.16 percent; and
Hungary, 1.01 percent.

Moreover, even those countries that meet the minimum budgetary
target don’t necessarily spend the money effectively. Italy,
the Netherlands, and some other members appear to use defense
budget funds more as a jobs program for otherwise unemployed youth
than as a coherent program to build a credible fighting force.

There are reasons, other than the lack of meaningful burden
sharing, for why the United States should phase out its commitment
to NATO. Adding an assortment of militarily insignificant client
states, as the alliance is doing most recently with Montenegro,
does not enhance America’s power or security. Worse, attempting to
protect vulnerable client states that are on poor terms with larger
neighbors, as the United States did by approving membership for the
three tiny Baltic republics, actually endangers—rather than
enhances—America’s security.

But the cynical free riding and lack of burden sharing on the
part of the NATO allies is a sufficient reason by itself to change
Washington’s policy. President Trump should follow through on his
warning and finally let the European nations begin to defend
themselves.

Ted Galen
Carpenter
, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the
National Interest, is the author of ten books, the contributing
editor of ten books, and the author of more than 650 articles on
international affairs.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal