What is left of NATO and the trans-Atlantic order after US President Donald Trump’s tumultuous week in Brussels, the United Kingdom and Helsinki, where he defended Russian President Vladimir Putin against accusations of cyberwarfare by America’s own intelligence agencies?
Watching events unfold through rose-tinted glasses, one might think that the West’s most important strategic alliance is more or less OK, or even growing stronger. In fact, NATO is in peril, and its fate now lies in Trump’s contemptuous hands.
Prior to and during the NATO summit, there was much hand-wringing over member states’ military spending as a share of their GDP. Each member is expected to increase its spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024, but Trump seems to think that this already should have been done. At the summit last week, he suddenly called for a new target of 4 percent of GDP — which is even more than the United States spends.
NATO member states’ defense budgets
To be sure, over the past few decades, NATO’s primary focus was on peacekeeping operations in distant places rather than on its core function of territorial defense. For most European member states, the peace dividend from the alliance’s operations justified cuts in domestic military spending.
But this attitude changed in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and launched secretive military incursions into Eastern Ukraine. Since then, NATO member states’ defense budgets have increased by around 4 percent per year on average, making the 2024 target eminently achievable.
More fundamentally, Trump’s complaint that the US is shouldering an unfair share of the burden for NATO’s collective defense is dubious. While the US military budget equals roughly 72 percent of combined defense spending by all NATO member states, roughly three-quarters of US military spending is directed toward regions other than Europe. Around half of the US defense budget is spent on maintaining a presence in the Pacific, and another quarter is spent on operations in the Middle East, strategic nuclear command and control, and other areas.
Moreover, although the US has increased its defense outlays in Europe substantially over the past few years, it is worth remembering that most US forces and facilities there are actually focused on the strategic arc from India to South Africa. With facilities such as Ramstein, Fairford, Rota, Vicenza and Sigonella, the US has long used Europe as a staging ground for deploying forces elsewhere. And the early warning and surveillance facilities that the US maintains in the United Kingdom and Norway are there to defend the America, not Europe.
The fact is that total European defense spending is about twice what the US spends on European security, and also roughly twice what Russia spends on defense, according to estimates produced at the US National Defense University.
The difference between NATO and US forces in Europe
The critical importance of US command, control and intelligence forces in Europe should not be minimized, but it should at least be put into perspective. Although the US Army recently rotated heavy brigades through Europe for military exercises, its permanently stationed troops are equipped only for limited interventions.
This is why NATO must continue to improve its defense capacity in Europe. At a minimum, Europe needs more military forces, and those forces need to be equipped for rapid deployment to critical areas. The new mobility command that is being established in Germany is a promising first step.
And yet, Russia’s advantages over NATO have less to do with resources than with command and control. As a single country, Russia’s military forces are more integrated and can be deployed more quickly in pursuit of strategic directives from the Kremlin. Such nimbleness was amply demonstrated in Crimea in 2014 and in Syria the following year.
For its part, NATO does have a deeply integrated command structure for the forces that are assigned to it. But that hardly matters if political decisions to deploy forces or launch operations are not taken in time. In any military confrontation, unity of will and the speed of high-level decision-making determine the outcome.
The problem is that while NATO’s military capacity is actually improving, its political decision-making capacity is deteriorating. Imagine what would happen if a NATO member state sounded the alarm about Russia launching a secretive Crimea-style military operation within its borders. Then, imagine that US intelligence agencies confirmed that an act of aggression was indeed underway, despite Putin’s denials.
Finally, imagine how Trump might respond. Would he call Putin to ask what’s going on? And would Putin make another “incredible offer” to help US investigators get to the bottom of things? Even more to the point: Would Trump quickly invoke the principle of collective defense under Article 5 of the NATO treaty? Or would he hesitate, question the intelligence, belittle US allies and validate Putin’s denials?
These are truly disturbing questions to have to ask of an American president. They will now hang over Europe’s head indefinitely.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.