The Cable

Thank Putin, Not Trump, For NATO’s New Defense Spending Boost

NATO allies plan to increase defense spending this year, but Trump can’t take full credit.

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One president is pushing NATO to get its act together on defense spending. But that president sits in Moscow, not Washington.

On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced non-U.S. NATO members will boost their defense spending by 4.3 percent this year as it seeks to counter Russian aggression and confront terrorist threats from the Middle East.

“To keep our nations safe, we need to keep working to increase defense spending and fairer burden-sharing across our alliance,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Wednesday. “We have really shifted gears. The trend is up, and we intend to keep it up.”

Stoltenberg announced non-U.S. NATO members will collectively increase spending on defense by 4.3 percent in 2017 — a $12 billion boost from 2016 levels. He said the money would be funneled into new military exercises and equipment to help NATO troops deploy quickly in case of emergency. Portions of the new funds would also go to troops’ salaries and pensions.

Burden sharing has long been a sore spot in U.S.-NATO relations. Washington, by far NATO’s largest defense spender, has pushed allies to pay their fair share for years. But Trump upped the ante by railing against allies for “owing” the United States backpay on spending gaps (though according to former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, that’s not how NATO defense spending works) and even hinting Washington wouldn’t come to the aid of allies who don’t spend enough on defense — moves that inflamed tensions with European capitals.

Currently, only five of NATO’s 29 allies meet the alliance’s commitment to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense — the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, and Greece. Romania is expected to reach the threshold this year, with Latvia and Lithuania following next year.

Trump has also taken credit for NATO’s defense spending boost, but top NATO and European officials insist the wake-up call came from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and not the man in the Oval Office.  

In the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, which caught Washington and its allies flat-footed, NATO members pledged to reach collectively the 2 percent threshold by 2024 through incremental spending increases. NATO defense spending grew 1.8 percent in 2015 and 3.3 percent in 2016. Many national governments hashed out these increases before Trump’s surprise presidential victory last November.

But regardless of who takes credit for what, Stoltenberg said Trump was on the right track. “I welcome the strong focus of President Trump on defense spending and burden sharing, because it is important that we deliver,” he said Wednesday.  “European allies should invest more in defense not only to please the United States, but they should invest more in defense because it is in their own interests.”

On Thursday, Stoltenberg will convene NATO defense ministers to discuss combating terrorism and burden-sharing issues in a semi-regular meeting in Brussels.

Trump’s past comments may have cast doubt on U.S. guarantees to NATO, but he isn’t shorting the alliance when it comes to money. The Trump administration committed $4.8 billion in its 2018 defense budget to expanding its military footprint and activities in Europe.

“Beyond any words in the newspapers, you can judge America by such actions,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Wednesday, speaking in Garmisch, Germany.

“The reason U.S. forces are in Europe is not out of charity to the Europeans,” he said. “The security of the U.S. would be directly affected if Europe came under the domination of an unfriendly power.”

Congress also wants NATO to know it has its back. On Tuesday, the House overwhelmingly voted for a resolution endorsing NATO’s mutual defense clause — something Trump failed to do in his gaffe-filled visit to Brussels last month.

“NATO is absolutely essential to our national security and global stability,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said in a statement Tuesday, in what appeared to be a signal to both nervous allies and some NATO-skeptics in the White House. “The United States must remain the world’s leading force for good, but we cannot confront the challenges of the 21st century alone.”

Trump earlier this month finally endorsed NATO’s mutual defense clause in response to a question from a journalist during a joint press conference with the Romanian President in Washington. “I’m committing the United States to Article 5,” he said.

NATO’s mutual defense clause, known as Article 5, has been the linchpin of transatlantic security since NATO’s inception in 1949. It was only ever invoked once, in support of the United States after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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