I never imagined that the President of the United States would display basic ignorance about NATO, a cornerstone of our national security. But let's use this as a teachable moment. One of the purposes of this blog, after all, is to offer some explanations about national security issues for my friends and family. Sort of a "National Security for Really Smart People."
Saturday, President Trump tweeted the following about Germany and NATO:
<Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2017
...vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2017
Trump fundamentally misunderstands how NATO works. NATO is not some club with some membership fee, and Germany owes the United States nothing for having troops in Europe.
So here is your primer (which is based on a great series of tweets by Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. Ambassador to NATO) : A few years back, in response to the rise of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the NATO members pledged that they would all spend at least two percent of their Gross Domestic Product on defense by 2024. Two observations here: (1) the commitment was to a target defense budget, not some payment to NATO or the U.S., and (2) the commitment was to meet this commitment by 2024, not right away.
As of this year, 5 of the 28 NATO countries have met this obligation , but most of the other NATO countries (including Germany) are increasing their defense budgets with an eye toward meeting this commitment. Remember that the 2024 target date is still seven years away. Trump's notion that Germany "owes" NATO money is a complete fabrication--or a profound misunderstanding of NATO.
A second point also needs to be made. The United States benefits greatly from its military presence in Europe. Europe is critically important to the U.S. economy, and a peaceful and stable Europe is in our national interest. While, the focus is on the defense of NATO against Russian aggression (and Soviet aggression during the Cold War), there is an often unstated additional benefit--our military presence in Europe and the NATO alliance itself, solidify peace among these allies as well,
Moreover, the troops in Europe also provide easy access to Africa and the Middle East during moments of crisis. Our rapid intervention in Libya and Mali were only possible because of our forces in Europe.
Finally, it is important to remember, that Article 5 of the NATO Charter--which calls for the collective defense of any NATO member attacked--has only been invoked one time in the entire history of NATO: when the U.S. was attacked on September 11, 2001. This was not merely symbolic. Within weeks, NATO AWACS planes were flying over the U.S. providing air defense support.
Our NATO allies should pay more for their own defense, and a little jawboning by the United States is certainly fair game--Obama and Bush both did this as well. As you can see from the chart above, several countries (including Germany) have lots of work to do to meet the 2024 commitment. The problem with Trump's comments is that it displays a profound lack of knowledge about how NATO works.