It is a farce. In 2006, NATO Defence Ministers agreed to commit a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defence spending. This guideline, according to NATO, “principally serves as an indicator of a country’s political will to contribute to the Alliance’s common defence efforts.” In 2017, only 5 of the 28 members outside the US have met the 2% threshold – Greece, Estonia, UK, Romania & Poland in that order. Despite Greece’s economic problems elsewhere, it manages to honour the deal. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “the majority [not all] of allies now have plans to do so by 2024.” 3 more are expected to hit the target in 2018. So for all the good will in the world, is POTUS wrong to call the other 19 members slackers that ride off the US taxpayer when so many of them are only likely to hit the target 18 years after ‘committing’ to it?
NATO commitment in 2017 can be seen as follows.
Although all credit to the Europeans and Canadians for getting away with it for so long. Previous US presidents have obviously not concerned themselves with getting a fair deal on mutually agreed commitments. Although in what world would American taxpayers be upset to see the rest of the team pick up the slack?
Naturally the media are getting mileage out of the insensitive bully attacking his supposed allies. In fact Stoltenberg said last month on record that, “burden sharing will be a key theme of our summit next month, and I expect all allies to continue their efforts.” He reiterated that to Trump yesterday.
To be brutally honest, how effective can a NATO force truly be if words aren’t put into action? What good is a promise if it is to be honored 18 years later. Imagine if that is the mindset should NATO be forced to act militarily. Would those meeting their obligations feel within their rights to have a bigger say in how NATO should work?
The problem with such a lack of commitment is that over the 12 years where 23 nations have not come close to meeting their obligations, the sum total of the actual defence capabilities suffers for the duration. The US is 67% of total NATO spend and the UK, France & Germany make up half of the remainder. Yet building a sustainable capability in defence does not come through half measures or poorly thought out procurement. What is missed on many is that over 70% of defence budgets are allocated to soldier pay, housing, healthcare, training and so forth. Procurement and RDT&E get funded out of the balance. Have a skirmish somewhere and yet more money is chewed out of buying new equipment for the sake of logistics (feeding 10,000 troops and servicing hardware in a foreign land). Then there is the subject of terribly managed procurement programs.
Take the French disaster that is the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle. Despite delays because of problems with a retrofit for radiation shields, the naval brass had to add 14 feet of deck because it realized that the E2-C Hawkeye surveillance planes it purchased couldn’t take off and land in its original build spec. Even now the flight deck is not long enough to conduct simultaneous launch and recovery operations. Even worse the blueprints for the CdG‘s propellers had been lost in a fire, which meant that the ship had to be refitted with hand-me down screws from carriers Foch and Clemenceau which meant her speed was cut from 27 knots to about 24 knots—which was unfortunate since her predecessors steamed at 32 knots. Speed to war zones is kind of important to gain a decisive edge. All of the spend to fix poorly thought out designs cuts from being able to procure other equipment and materiel. Scary to think Australia is buying 12 subs from the French! The problems are already revealing themselves despite not one boat having hit the dry dock.
History tells us many things of how NATO type organisations have failed in the past.The Peloponnesian Wars (431BC – 404BC) highlighted how things can change when allies do not keep up commitments and capabilities aren’t maintained.
Athens required her Delian League member states (consisting of city states mainly along the Ionian Sea) to pay tributes (phoros) to the treasury which was used to build and maintain the naval fleet led by Athens. Yet over time the member states relied too much on the wealth of Athens and over the course of the draining war and the costly campaign to Sicily, failed to honour the ever increasing demands to fund the league with the appropriate level of tributes which drove Athens into massive debt. Defence spending by the Athenians had been cut to around 30-60% of the average over the previous decade. The Delian League’s capabilities dwindled as a result and the Spartans, funded by Persia, took advantage of this and crushed it for good, in the very art of war that Athens was renowned for – the navy.
It is not hard to think of Trump feeling like a modern day Pericles. NATO is the Delian League and its projected enemies chip away all the while members dither over commitments, forcing the US to sustain the limited capability. Like the Athenians, the US has the most powerful navy in the world with a fleet bigger than the next 11 countries combined but even it has pared back the number of ships to less than 10% of what it had in WW2. Enhanced capability is one factor in cutting the surface fleet but even the US DoD realised that the conventionally powered US Kitty Hawk consumed 2% of the entire US military fuel bill annually so it was taken out of service to save money.
One can argue the $750 billion annual defence budget is plentiful but the US realises that power projection is an expensive business. Even Japan understands it can’t stay nestled in the bosom of US stationed forces forever without taking a proactive stance to defend itself. That is the same message to the 19 members NATO failing to pull their weight.