Guest View: Will Trump take simple approach to complex NATO issues?

Updated 7/11/2018 8:51 AM
  • Keith Peterson

    Keith Peterson

By Keith Peterson

President Donald Trump heads to Europe this week for the meeting of NATO leaders followed by his summit, on the 16th, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. All signals suggest the atmosphere at the NATO summit will range from chilly to stormy.

The president has been vocal about the failure of the majority of NATO members to allocate at least two percent of their GDPs to defense and he has suggested NATO countries "owe" the U.S. tens of billions of dollars. Where did this number come from?

First, NATO has its own budget for the maintenance of its headquarters and for training. NATO members are apportioned their contributions by a formula and all members are in good standing and have fulfilled their pledges.

What the two percent threshold refers to is the members' overall defense spending both NATO-related and non-NATO.

The two percent figure was agreed upon in 2002 as a non-binding guideline because that was roughly what European members of NATO were spending at that time. For comparison, the U.S. is currently spending 3.5 percent of GDP on defense.

The president's complaints are nothing new. American presidents going back to John Kennedy have groused about European "freeloading" and every American president has urged the other NATO members to spend more. What sets President Trump apart has been how public his criticisms have been and how much he has denigrated the alliance and questioned its value.

However, this measurement only takes one so far. For example, one might be surprised that Greece, given its ongoing financial crisis, is one of the five NATO countries that is spending more than two percent on defense, but that number is misleading.

Part of the reason is that the crisis has caused Greece's GDP to shrink without a parallel cut in defense spending. Greece uses its military as a kind of jobs program and it has always maintained defense spending because of tensions with its neighbor Turkey, another NATO member.

The question is, does this spending provide a useful capability?

Take Belgium. It spends approximately one third of its military budget on pensions. The yardstick more properly should be deployable troops, lift capability, special forces/anti-terrorism units or cyber defenses.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO most certainly faced an identity crisis, but in the wake of 9/11 when the alliance invoked Article Five -- an attack on one is an attack on all -- and launched an out-of-area operation in Afghanistan, there has been more focus and cohesion.

But it is clear that as threats evolve, so must NATO.

Since 2015, there has been an uptick in spending by the European members of NATO that fall under the two percent guideline, but analysts note that it would be unwise to increase defense spending by a large amount all at once because large sudden influxes of funding are often spent poorly.

NATO must always ask itself what threats do we face and what capabilities do we need to combat these threats. Europe faces Russian aggression and cyber threats and instability in the Middle East continues apace. To the extent that European populations understand the threats and believe NATO can counter them, there will be more political support for increased spending.

Yet it is important to understand that NATO is more than a military force, albeit the most successful military alliance in history.

Its shared democratic values form the bedrock of the alliance and make it a vital political actor. It is worrying that illiberal forces of nationalism and populism in Poland, Hungary, Italy and Turkey, forces that Mr. Putin is happy to exploit, are now shaking this foundation.

The president could rally the member states against these threats and help NATO push back against the illiberal forces that can only divide and weaken the alliance.

Or he could create a "28 vs. one unity" that could cause lasting damage.

The question that must be asked is if the president's exhortations to spend more are a sincere effort to increase and improve the alliance's capabilities or is this rhetoric part of a larger transactional political narrative -- that America is being taken advantage of and being cheated -- designed simply to appeal to his political base.

Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.

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