In evident anticipation of the upcoming NATO summit, Donald Trump has written strongly worded letters to many of our NATO allies complaining that they don’t spend enough on defense. This is an old complaint by US presidents, of course, but it has a particularly sharp edge coming from Donald Trump, given his past expressed skepticism about the need for NATO, his break with Europe over the Iran nuclear agreement, and his moves toward trade wars with practically all our major trading partners.

Trump has testily reminded the allies of NATO’s guideline for each member country to spend 2% of its GDP on the military. Most NATO countries fall short of that objective. In 2017, for example, while the UK was over 2%, France was at 1.8%, Germany and Denmark at 1.2% and Italy at 1.1%. The US, by contrast, spends 3.6%. The question that Trump is posing is, in effect: why can’t the Europeans be more like the US?

The Europeans’ failure to come up to snuff is generally attributed to either or both tight budgets, heavily burdened with welfare state expenditures; and free riding—why spend more when we can depend on the good ol’ US to defend us?

I have an alternative explanation of the Europeans’ stinginess: deep down, they don’t really want to spend more on “defense” because they know that really, there’s no need to. The only remotely plausible military threat to Western Europe would come from Russia. But how likely is Russia to invade Germany or France (presumably by going first through Poland)? It’s more understandable that the small previously subjugated countries on Russia’s borders feel nervous about Russian aggressiveness, but the Russian threat to Western Europe takes non-military forms—cyber warfare and various subtle or not so subtle interference in its adversaries’ domestic politics. Anyway, NATO’s military spending is already more than enough to handle Russia. There are 29 member countries in NATO, but its four biggest military spenders alone (UK, France, Germany and Italy) together spend nearly three times as much as Russia does on preparations for war.  On second thought, I take it back: Russia doesn’t pose even a remotely plausible military threat.

I like to turn the question around: why can’t the US be more like the Europeans? Our bloated military budget (which Trump has further inflated) far exceeds anything we need to defend ourselves. It is a budget designed not for national security, but for global primacy. It’s a budget for the projection of American power into every corner of the world. The Europeans don’t have such ambitions. They spend money on mundane things, like health care, education and pensions. Good for them.


  1. Harry July 5, 2018 at 11:01 pm

    So why does the US always want the Euros to spend more? As you said, it’s not just Trump.

    • tonygreco July 6, 2018 at 10:18 am

      Good question, and I’m not sure I have a really good answer. I think it’s mostly symbolic. NATO is the cornerstone of the US’s global network of alliances, and the US (and some of the Europeans, too) would like to think of its NATO allies as sort of junior partners in the global Pax Americana. But even junior partners need to have some equity in the enterprise, and it’s unseemly for them to be investing so much less than the US. More concretely, the US has sometimes looked to its NATO allies for help in its military interventions (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan) so it’s useful if they’ve got guns and troops to spare. Anyway, at least since the end of the Cold War, the US hasn’t really pressed its allies hard on military spending. It says they need to spend more, they say “yeah, we’ll try,” and not much really changes. It’s a lot of posturing. At least until Trump. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

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