BRUSSELS: President Trump told NATO allies on Wednesday he wants to see them spend four percent of their GDP on defense, doubling the currently agreed-upon goal of two percent — a number most NATO member states will fall well short of meeting for years to come.
The unexpected demand from Trump during a closed-door meeting of heads of state laid down a new, virtually unachievable marker for a peacetime military spending in an alliance already struggling to meet current defense spending commitments. The failure of many allies to release a plan to achieve the two percent goal has drawn the fury of the president, even as NATO leaders acknowledge they need to be more aggressive in modernizing their military capabilities.
White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders confirmed the ask to reporters on Wednesday, saying that the president “wants to see our allies share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations.”
Any such increase would be nearly impossible for smaller countries in Europe to achieve, and it is not clear that the capitals of Europe could muster the public or political support for such breathtaking increases in defense spending.
In 2017, the United States spent 3.1 percent of its GDP on defense, while Estonia, Greece, Poland and the United Kingdom stand as the only countries which have crossed the two percent threshold. Most other nations barely scratch out numbers much above one percent.
Earlier in the day, after Trump blasted Germany for buying Russian oil and natural gas, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg sought to convey an attitude of slow, steady progress for the alliance. Allies will deliver on fairer burden-sharing, he said, pointing out that European Allies and Canada are expected to spend an extra $266 billion on defence between now and 2024.
In 2017, the alliance saw its biggest increase in defense spending “in a generation,” he said, signaling to his aggrieved ally in the White House that “we see that all Allies have started to increase defense spending based on the national plans we have agreed to develop last year.”
Rachel Rizzo, who works on Europe and NATO issues at the Center for a New American Security, said that while it is positive that allies have reversed years of decreases in defense spending, pegging defense spending to an arbitrary percentage is problematic.
Focusing on numbers, rather than capabilities, “is an inadequate way to measure allies’ impact and their various contributions to NATO’s mission of collective defense. Because of this, allies are right to shift messaging away from just hard dollars spent on defense,” she said.
Claudia Major, a researcher at the German Institute for International Security Affairs in Berlin, said that Germany, in particular, does more for the alliance than spend on its own defense, including deploying troops to Afghanistan, “and eventually, two percent is an arbitrary measurement that does not say much about efficiency and output.”
But Major questions whether the arguments being made by the president are really only about spending.
“Trump not only has a problem with NATO. He generally dislikes the Alliance and Allied solidarity, the very principle of an alliance and mulitlareral frameworks,” she said. “He does not see the value, and does not recognize that the US also benefits from it. The main challenge is that the transatlantic relationship as such is changing, and NATO is just one element of this change. We have a fundamental disagreements on principles and objectives between Trump and the Europeans. This goes beyond NATO – and will continue after NATO.”
Despite his continued criticism of the transAtlantic pact, Trump on Wednesday signed the 23-page NATO declaration, along with his 28 other allies, which reaffirmed the two percent goal to be reached by 2014.