The transatlantic glitterati will meet this week at the Munich Security Conference for their annual group paean to NATO. In the alliance’s 70th year, the values and shared history that NATO embodies will no doubt figure prominently in the speeches.
But, in Washington, US President Donald Trump is thinking more in terms of dollars and cents. If the Washington rumour mill has it right, he has plans in the works to send low-spending NATO members a bill for continued American protection.
The reasoning is clear. For Trump, NATO is a rip-off. “The United States,” he noted in July, “is spending far more on NATO than any other country. This is not fair, nor is it acceptable.”
The harder issue is what to do about it. The classic US approach is to persuade NATO members to spend more – in 2014, they all agreed to raise their defence spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024. Trump’s anti-NATO bluster has accelerated some of this spending.
Future Munich Security Conferences may resemble more a trade show than a celebration of Western unity
Recent reports suggest that Trump is not satisfied with the progress and that he still wants to pull out of NATO. And there are signs that something is happening with the alliance in Washington. Recently, several US officials responsible for NATO in the state and defence departments have resigned. The latest of them to do so, Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of state for Europe, departed suddenly, citing the classic desire to spend more time with the family. Some of the more jaded souls in Washington are wondering whether Mitchell’s resignation has to do with a plan to present Europeans with a bill for decades of US protection.
In response to Trump’s anti-NATO stance, the House of Representatives took time from its busy schedule in January to pass a symbolic resolution barring a US exit. Then, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg suddenly showed up to Washington to give Trump credit for stimulating more than $100 billion in additional allied spending. But he did not meet with the president. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the US will only support NATO members who contribute their “fair share”.
Pompeo’s comment implies that the Trump administration still believes the US is paying too much. Indeed, Trump’s critique of NATO questions why the US should spend anything on the defending rich countries in Europe.
Legally, Trump can’t pull the US out of NATO on his own. But, he has hinted in the past, demanding payment is almost as good. “Germany,” Trump tweeted in March 2017, “owes … vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!” When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the White House that month, he reportedly presented her with an invoice for $300 billion in back payments due to the United States (plus interest). The Germans dismissed the idea as outrageous – and the US denied the incident ever happened – but it hasn’t gone away.
Trump’s argument is flawed in more ways than one. It is easy to say US allies have not contributed their fair share, but a lot harder to put a specific number on the shortfall. How far back do the back payments go? Do they make up for lack of allied spending or offset US spending in Europe? What is the going interest rate for underpayments to NATO? The Defense Department doesn’t track its spending in terms of contributions to NATO or Europe, let alone individual countries, so these questions do not have simple answers.
Still, if demands for payments do appear, the effect will be seismic. The US government will be making the case that NATO is not an alliance built on political solidarity but rather a mere vehicle for hiring American mercenaries. If it is just about money, various allies in Europe may wonder whether they can get a better deal from Russia or China. Future Munich Security Conferences may resemble more a trade show than a celebration of Western unity.
NATO has defended America and the West for 70 years. It contained the Soviet Union, responded with solidarity to the 9/11 attack, and helped America carry its burden in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya. NATO has become the most successful and durable alliance in history. But in Trump’s America, all that gets reduced to a bill owed to the United States. In the end, it may cost us all.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.