There can be no denying that President Donald Trump is one of the most contentious leaders of the modern world. To his supporters he is the paragon of the American dream; a self-made businessman fighting against the cosy Establishment. To his detractors he is the very opposite; a crass populist who is ultimately in office for his own interests. The evident divide in opinion testifies to said contention. But there is at least one policy stance of the President that both his supporters and detractors largely agree upon: NATO member-states are not paying their fair share. They have to agree then, that Trump’s defence policy is not without credit.
That America subsidises the defence of several European states was a staple claim of Trump’s presidential campaign. NATO member-states are required to spend a minimum of 2 per cent of their GDP on defence but the reality is more complex than this. Five key members – Germany, Italy, France, Canada, Turkey – all spend less than 2 per cent. In fact, according to NATO’s own figures, just five NATO members actually meet the 2 per cent figure.
The UK government claims to meet its NATO spending commitment but recently the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) claimed that Britain’s defence spending has failed to meet its NATO targets. According to the IISS, clever accounting tricks can make it appear that a state is honouring its NATO spending commitment. Quantifying ”defence” is evidently no straightforward task.
That aside, the importance of NATO for the West cannot be overstated. Established in the aftermath of WWII to serve as an intergovernmental military alliance, NATO is the underpinning of Western security. But the principle of collective security upon which NATO was founded is undermined if member-states fail to honour their commitments.
Granted, Mr Trump’s position with regards to NATO has been far from consistent. Indeed, on the campaign trail, Mr Trump claimed that NATO was ‘obsolete’ (a claim of his I personally disagreed with and did not take seriously), but he has since changed his stance on this, probably based on the counsel of those military minds closest to him.
To Mr Trump’s credit, those states whose defence relies upon America seem to have taken stock of his rhetoric. Indeed, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently outlined plans for NATO to boost defence spending by 4.3 per cent this year. Granted, the overall increase in NATO defence spending pre-dates the Trump administration; it increased following the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, before Mr Trump was even a presidential candidate. But this overlooks two crucial points. First, NATO should not have waited for Crimea to be annexed in order to increase defence spending. Second, it doesn’t change the fact that the majority of NATO members are still not fulfilling their individual spending commitments.
Self-described pacifists will bemoan NATO’s increased defence spending (lacking an appreciation for the old maxim that in times of peace one prepares for the possibility of war) but contemporary events make the case for increased defence spending, both by individual members and by NATO as a whole, unequivocal.
A Dangerous World
Today, NATO faces at least two broad security challenges. The first is what one might describe as an orthodox threat in international relations: that of a bellicose nation-state; the Russian Federation (to use but one example from a NATO perspective). The second is less orthodox in that it does not subscribe to the statist lens through which much of international relations is conducted; Islamist terrorism. The danger of the former is testified by Russia’s effective annexation of Crimea and its intervention in the Middle East, most prominently in Syria. The danger of the latter is testified by the rapid rise of the so-called ”Islamic State”. Granted, the Islamic State is on the retreat in Iraq, but it retains a stranglehold in Syria from where it orchestrates acts of terror both near and far from home.
Whether Mr Trump appreciates the risk of the former is arguable; that he has called out the latter is undeniable (the same cannot be said of his predecessor).
Those who subscribe to the Realist school of International Relations theory will appreciate that the international system is inherently anarchic. That is to say, there is no power above states to enforce contractual obligations. States operate in a ‘self-help’ world, to borrow the phrase of Kenneth Waltz, the prominent neorealist scholar. In other words, the world is a dangerous place, and this calls for serious long-term strategic thinking. That’s where NATO comes in.
A Grand Strategy for Defence
A quantitative benchmark is only one part of the picture. With NATO member-states under pressure to pay their fair share, what Mr Trump now has to press for as part of said strategic thinking is a grand strategy. This should aim to tackle contemporary security threats, both those posed by state actors and their non-state counterparts. This will require increased coordination and cooperation between Western allies (and the leakage of sensitive intelligence by the President himself no doubt undermines this need). As the world’s sole superpower, though, the United States must take the lead.
The G20 Summit currently taking place in Hamburg, Germany, will be an opportunity for the President – either in public or behind the scenes – to reiterate the importance of NATO and, with that importance, the obligations of its members. This message is predicated on the principle that defence of the realm is the first duty of any government. Thus far, the Trump administration – on balance – are following that principle.