Trump Wants Our Allies to Spend More on Defense. Is That a Good Idea?

June 5, 2019
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets members of the 9th Armored Demonstration Brigade on May 20, 2019 in Munster, Germany. (Photo by Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images)

One of President Trump’s frequent complaints about our allies is that they are “freeloaders” who aren’t doing enough to maintain their own defenses. His language is a loud, coarser version of the same protests his predecessors made over the years, that NATO members should be committing more to their military.

One the one hand, his grousing has nudged NATO members to increase their spending. On the other, it’s left our allies resentful and feeling bullied. So it must be asked: Is it worth it?

Way back in 2002, NATO members reached an agreement by which each would commit to spending 2 percent of GDP on their military budgets. Most countries fell short of the goal. In 2014, during the Obama administration, members renewed that pledge and were making progress even before Trump made noise by calling NATO obsolete and threatened that the United States would not come to the aid of fellow members.

There are upsides to such a pledge. A commitment to increased defense spending will be a show of will and seriousness by the Europeans about their own collective security. It will also help the aggregate power of NATO against the Russian bear. Precisely, by each country spending in accordance to its own security needs in regard to its terrain, demographics, economy, etc., it will make the dollars spent more effective.

But there are downsides. Many of them.

President Trump loves to talk about the 2 percent figure, and would prefer that member nations up the ante to 4 percent of GDP. But focusing on absolute dollar amounts does not indicate HOW countries are spending their money.

The “ideal” scenario will be artillery and bullets. But if the European postwar history is of any insight, Europeans will spend much if not most of that additional funding on welfare programs for their troops and their families, not defense capabilities.

But there is another critical point. How many bullets can you buy if everyone hits 2 percent of GDP? If all Europeans were to meet the 2 percent pledge right away, that would be a mere $200 billion addition to NATO’s aggregate defense spending, a fraction of the United States’ defense budget, let alone NATO’s aggregate defense spending. Germany is the largest European country not meeting that 2 percent pledge; were it to hit that goal, it would translate into two aircraft carriers and nothing more.

But what if the Europeans decide to meaningfully ramp up their militaries?

Robert Kagan brought up this question about Germany in a recent Foreign Affairs essay, “The Return of the German Question.”

What we, the children of the post-Wold War II world see as normal is an unnatural state of the world: peaceful and prosperous. Kagan identifies four elements for this—the United States security umbrella, international free trade regime, the democratic wave, and the suppression of nationalism—and it doesn’t take a genius to see all of these elements in erosion.

The progressive and historicist view thinks that this “normal” state of the world is here to stay for good. But war is the state of nature, nature never changes, and it has its way to come back through the window when you kick it out of the door. And no war is more catastrophic for the United States than a continental one in Europe, least because Europe is our greatest economic partner, and mostly because we will be dragged into it.

Germany’s  unwillingness to contribute has been a headache for NATO for the past two decades. What is a curse today was a blessing yesterday, and there is no certainty that it will remain this way. Germany and other European countries could become aggressive as fast as they became pacifist. Besides, the original purpose of NATO was deterring the Soviet Union and now Russia. We are asking members to pay more into their defenses today when several of them like Hungary and Turkey are not only deterring powers against Russia but drifting towards becoming its enablers.

Europe has been a largely pacifist continent for 70 years, because it hasn’t had a military, and because it has been liberal—economically and politically. The United States tried very hard after World War II to make sure Germany would not have a military in the postwar world and would be democratic. The recent surge of illiberals and nationalists in Europe are worrisome to those who seek peace in the continent. Is now really the time for the remilitarization of Europe?

During the Cold War, what deterred the Soviet Union’s aggressions was not Germany’s conventional military capabilities, but the combined conventional power of the former allies—the United Kingdom and France—led by the conventional and nuclear capabilities of the United States and its physical presence in Europe.

And finally, military power is the strongest form of power. The stronger our partners are, the more we have to involve them in decision-making process. If anybody thinks that the Europeans are a source of annoyance today in dealing with Iran, Iraq, or China, just imagine how they will act when they possess powerful militaries and don’t have to be as nice to the United States for the sake of their own securities. Will they work with us to sanction Iran and contain China?

When it comes to NATO, President Trump has been missing the larger point; aggregate military power is just one element. Their most important contributions are geographic access, political legitimacy for international actions, and access to resources.

It is true that the American people are unhappy with NATO members’ contributions to their own defenses, but is that really a voting priority? More important, Americans are aware of this disparity and find it problematic mostly because presidents from both parties made political hay out of it.

It is a fair question to ask where the balance for NATO members is to contribute to their collective security without risking the European and global order, but there are too many nuances involved that the president neither seems interested in nor willing to educate the public about, if he is aware of them at all.

To those who want to see a muscular Europe, the best advice is, be careful what you wish for.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a graduate student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran and left the country in 2011. He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Follow him @ShayKhatiri.