Yes, he is correct…in a way.
But mostly he’s wrong about the details and nuances of NATO and how it works, and he’s especially wrong about his jackassery, Ugly American, way of going about suggesting changes from the NATO members.
So, in other words…it’s complicated.
To begin with, these are our friends, our allies, the good guys…the countries that came to our aid after the biggest attack on our homeland ever (the only time the Article 5 provision of collective defense has been invoked by NATO, by the way) and have been fighting and dying alongside us in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years after.
In that context, Trump is simply being an ignorant, abrasive, bully. It’s not strength. It’s not leadership. It’s not diplomacy.
The ramifications of his demeanor and actions can very likely have lasting detrimental effects to our relationships with our allies, which most definitely is not in the best interests of America and our national defense.
That said, let’s take a look at where Trump is right. NATO would most certainly be stronger and more effective if all of it’s members increased their spending on their own defense. That’s just simple logic and math. And Trump is not the first President to suggest that many members of NATO are not spending enough.
But the question is, how much spending on defense is enough? And is that the only factor in determining whether a particular country should be in NATO? Heck, if every NATO country spent 10% of their GDP on defense, wouldn’t that be an even stronger NATO? So, why 2%? Basically, it’s an arbitrary number to attempt to ensure that each member nation takes their obligations to each other seriously.
We typically spend about 4% of our GDP on defense, while most every other nation in the world spends much less. Keep in mind that no matter how Trump makes it sound, we are not sending 4% of our GDP to NATO for their operations. And other member nations do not owe 2% of their GDP to NATO. These are simply numbers that members have agreed to target for their spending in order for each nation to be able to provide their respective level of support when needed. There is no “bill” that nation’s have not paid and are now in arrears on.
Furthermore, the 2% of GDP number is not even a requirement for membership in NATO. It is simply a guideline that members agreed to attempt to reach by 2024. And most members have been increasing their spending accordingly already.
So are we being played for suckers by the rest of the NATO members, as Trump would have us believe? Do we have our troops stationed all over the world (and especially in Europe) solely to provide for their defense, as Trump has been suggesting?
Of course not.
We have our troops stationed all over the world for the simple fact that it is in our own best national defense interests to do so. We are trying to prevent another World War that we would inevitably be dragged into and which would cost way more than what we currently pay in money and, more importantly, in lives.
In that sense, NATO is a deterrent…and a very effective one at that. Some members of NATO, such as Iceland, did not come begging to be a part of it. Rather, we have encouraged and convinced them to, in order to use their geographic positions for our own strategic benefits. And that’s precisely why we have troops in Germany, and Greece, and Spain, and France, and every other place around the globe. Should such countries that we brought into NATO for our own strategic purposes now be cajoled into spending what we say they should spend?
Having these partners in NATO for those purposes provides us with the bases we need to operate from in order to protect our national interests from anywhere in the world. And that is way more valuable than anything else that these nations can provide for us. At the same time, it enables us to have huge influence in the affairs of the world, which is a great thing.
Would it be awesome if every member of NATO increased their own spending on defense to 2%+ of GDP by tomorrow? Sure. But whether they do or not, are we going to base our own defense spending on what others do, or will we continue to do what we think is best in our own interests? Would it benefit us if Germany decided to spend 10% of their GDP on defense and thus decided they didn’t want us having any troop presence in Germany anymore? No, that would greatly hamper our abilities to stage military operations around the world in order to better assure our own national defense.
So, it’s fine to encourage and convince the other nations to increase their spending and timelines, and provide a variety of incentives to do so in an amiable, cooperative, and diplomatic way. But, bullying, shaming, and attacking our allies in the manner in which Trump is doing, threatens to unravel NATO which is counterproductive and would do us way more harm than these nations not increasing their spending fast enough for Trump’s liking. In the end, we would pay a much larger amount of money and lives in order to fix the messes around the world that would cause, not only militarily, but also in all of the other ways such reduced foreign relations would play out, such as in trade.
Just like with nearly everything else Trump talks about, there is an element of correctness in what he says, but the manner in which he says it and the blustering, bullying actions he takes, will have more negative long-term effects than any short-term gains he manages to get.