Since winning the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump has shaken seven decades of American defense policy by targeting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for criticism. While Trump has dropped his contention that the military alliance connecting the U.S., Canada and Europe is “obsolete,” he maintains that it’s insufficiently focused on fighting terrorism and that most NATO members fail to pay their “fair share” for the common defense. The U.S. bears the heaviest military costs. Trump’s sourness over the 29-nation NATO has some allies questioning the U.S. commitment to the treaty’s key doctrine that an armed attack against any member is considered an attack against all.
1. What’s the point of NATO?
Since it was founded in 1949 to protect Europe against Soviet attack during the Cold War, NATO has expanded its role to include bombing Serb forces during the Bosnia and Kosovo wars of the 1990s, enforcing an arms embargo on Libya in 2011, helping Europe tackle a flood of Middle Eastern refugees that erupted in 2015, and stepping up cyber defense. In addition, since Russia’s encroachment in Ukraine in 2014, the alliance has refocused on the military threat from Moscow, deploying multinational battle groups in eastern Europe to reassure allies there. All the while, NATO’s membership has grown from 12 to 29 countries, with Montenegro joining in June 2017.
2. How is NATO funded?
Two ways. Countries make contributions based on their gross national income to finance NATO’s own budget, which amounts to 2.2 billion euros ($2.5 billion) for 2017 and covers the alliance’s headquarters, its integrated command and its own limited military capabilities. But most of NATO’s capacity comes from the armed forces of member nations. In 2006, members set a “guideline” to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. In 2014, they agreed to “aim to move towards” the target by 2024.
3. Has the U.S. always spent more on defense?
Yes, but the imbalance has grown. Military spending increased in the U.S. following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and decreased in Europe after the Cold War ended in 1990 and again after the financial crisis broke out in 2008. Over the past 20 years, the U.S. share of defense spending by NATO members as a whole has risen to 72 percent from 58 percent.
4. Do members owe money from past years?
No. Trump has said NATO allies that have failed to meet the 2 percent spending guideline in past years owe "vast sums" or "massive amounts" to NATO. This is untrue because the spending goal is just that, not a legally binding commitment.
5. What do states that spend less than 2 percent say?
The sharpest response has come from Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, which spends about 1.2 percent of GDP on defense. She has said the country will live up to its NATO obligation while stressing that the agreed timeframe for achieving the 2 percent target is 2024. Merkel has also insisted on looking beyond purely military expenditures. She argues that because development aid is vital to security, it should be included in contributions toward the common defense. Germany spent 0.7 percent of gross national income on such assistance in 2016, compared with 0.18 percent by the U.S., according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In addition, NATO members are focused beyond military expenditures on improving their actual military capabilities, complicating the gauge of what constitutes a fair contribution.
6. What is NATO’s role fighting terrorism?
After the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 16 years ago, NATO invoked its collective-defense clause for the first and so far only time. Since then, the alliance has gradually boosted its anti-terrorism activities. That first operation, which involved the use of Airborne Warning and Control System planes to help patrol the skies over the U.S., was followed by ship monitoring in the Mediterranean Sea, participation in the war in Afghanistan, and the training of Iraqi soldiers. Most recently, NATO leaders decided last month in Brussels to make the alliance a full member of the international coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
7. What more does Trump want?
With Estonia, Greece, Poland and the U.K. being the only European members of NATO that met the 2 percent spending goal in 2016, Trump has pressed for firmer signals that other allies will ramp up defense outlays. To that end, the alliance’s leaders agreed at their meeting in May to draw up annual plans for increased spending. European members and Canada will boost military outlays by 4.3 percent in 2017 after an increase of 3.3 percent in 2016, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in late June.
8. Why is there concern over Trump’s commitment to NATO?
During his election campaign, Trump alarmed U.S. allies in Europe by suggesting the U.S. commitment to defend fellow NATO countries should depend on whether their military spending was high enough. European nations seeking a reassurance on this point were disappointed at the May 25 Brussels summit, where Trump refused to offer an explicit endorsement of NATO’s collective-defense clause. Instead, he hectored fellow leaders to pay more for defense. Two weeks later, in a press conference in Washington, Trump said he was "absolutely" committed to the clause.
9. Why is the mutual-defense doctrine so important?
The principle, enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO treaty, enhances the credibility of the alliance’s deterrence strategy by increasing the risks for any potential aggressor. More generally, the doctrine has symbolized an underlying partnership between North America and Europe based on shared political and economic values. With Russia challenging the security order in Europe, NATO’s European members consider Article 5 to be as relevant as ever.
The Reference Shelf
- A Foreign Policy article on NATO’s May 25 summit.
- A Pew Research Center survey showing an improved NATO image.
- A Bloomberg News story from 2015 on NATO’s eastern defense plan.