The Never Trump crowd has found another example of The Donald’s disqualifying ignorance: comments he made about NATO. He has said that our contributions to NATO are “unfair,” that they are “costing us a fortune,” that we are “getting ripped off,” and that they are “getting a free ride.” By the way, Obama in his Atlantic interview also called the Europeans “free riders,” but I don’t recall a lot of sneering at the president for his “alarming” and “dangerous” remarks, as one critic put it.
Trump also implied that he would put the European NATO members’ feet to the fire about meeting the 2006 requirement that they spend 2% of GDP on their militaries, and suggested he would negotiate a new contribution schedule. Few NATO members have met that requirement, which is a violation of Article 3 that requires member states to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” According to NATO’s own report, only five countries are estimated to meet the 2% requirement in 2016. France, Germany, Italy, and Spain––the first, third, fourth, and fifth largest economies in the EU––are not among them. The richest, Germany, is expected to remain at 1.19%. In contrast, the US will spend 3.9%. As Lord Robertson, NATO Secretary General from 1999-2004, put it, European nations are “military pygmies.”
Critics of Trump are technically correct to say that he exaggerates when he claims that the US pays the “lion’s share” of NATO funding. In fact, the US pays under a fifth (22%). But the complaints about European NATO members, which predate Trump by decades, take into account more salient deficiencies. “Common funding,” of which the US covers a fifth, is “used to finance NATO’s principal budgets: the civil budget (NATO HQ running costs), the military budget (costs of the integrated Command Structure) and the NATO Security Investment Programme (military capabilities),” according to NATO. In other words, mostly institutional bureaucratic infrastructure.
“Indirect spending” covers what each nation voluntarily contributes to an operation. NATO acknowledges the greater share the US spends on indirect spending: “there is an over-reliance by the Alliance as a whole on the United States for the provision of essential capabilities, including for instance, in regard to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air-to-air refuelling; ballistic missile defence; and airborne electronic warfare.” We could also mention transport aircraft, cruise missiles, and other matériel that the European countries simply don’t have much of. For example, in the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya, there were 246 cruise missiles launched. The US fired 228 of them. At $1.5 million apiece, that adds up to $342 million taxpayer dollars spent to destabilize a country and get four of our citizens killed.
This discrepancy in indirect spending and military capability was already obvious in the 1990’s when NATO intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo to stop a vicious war. During the 1999 crisis in Kosovo, the Europeans had to make “heroic efforts” just to deploy 2% of their two million troops, according to the British foreign secretary. Historian William Shawcross writes of the bombing campaign, “The United States flew the overwhelming majority of the missions, and dropped almost all the precision-guided U.S.-made munitions, and most of the targets were generated by U.S. intelligence.”
So Trump’s complaints, as blustering and exaggerated as they may be, are legitimate. Operations conducted by NATO are overwhelmingly American funded and directed, and NATO is a diplomatic fig-leaf for American power.
No more convincing are the reasons critics give for supporting NATO. The alliance has not prevented “major state conflict since World War II,” as a writer at NRO claims. Given that some 40 million people have died in conflicts since WWII, I’m not sure what “peace” we’re talking about. During the Cold War, the peace between the US and the Soviet Union was kept by nuclear “mutually assured destruction” and millions of American troops, not NATO. Nor was Europe in any condition to fight among themselves. The Europeans were, and still are in many ways, burned out after 30 years of warring, and had neither the will, the morale, nor the belief in anything worth dying for to engage in another war. With their security underwritten by the US, they could spend their money on lavish social welfare programs and la dolce vita. Thinking NATO kept the peace is as preposterous as claiming the EU did.
Then there’s Article 5, the pledge that NATO members will fight for any member state that’s been attacked. Much is made of the only time Article 5 has been invoked, after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Yet all that solidarity and allied good will didn’t stop France and Germany from trying to undermine the US when it tried to get the UN to sanction the war in 2003 on Saddam Hussein, who had violated 16 UN resolutions and the formal terms ending the 1991 Iraq War. Despite the consensus of American and European intelligence agencies that Hussein had WMD stockpiles, France and Germany took the lead in lobbying the Security Council to oppose the authorization to use force against Iraq. Germany’s ambassador to the UN Council pressured members like Mexico and Chile to vote against the US. Worse yet, France and Germany, along with Belgium, formally objected to a proposal for NATO to send defensive equipment to Turkey, which wanted assurances that it would be supported by its fellow NATO members if attacked for supporting the war against Hussein.
This behavior of NATO allies did not reflect principle, but national interests and politics. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was running for re-election, and found reflexive German anti-Americanism and pacifism a convenient distraction from his terrible economic record. France had grubbier reasons in addition to its own ressentiment towards the US––renewing the arm sales to Iraq and oil development contracts it had enjoyed for years before the war, and could resume once the sanctions on Hussein were lifted, something France was actively pursuing. As Shawcross summarized, “The long friendship with Saddam, commercial considerations, the response to le défi Américain, and concern over the reactions of France’s Muslims––all these played a part in [President Jacques] Chirac’s calculations in the summer of 2002.”
The importance put on Article 5 forgets that, as George Washington said, “It is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation can be trusted farther than it is bound by its interests.” NATO members have made and in the future will make decisions based on each nation’s estimation of its interests. So there’s no guarantee that invoking Article 5 would lead to meaningful NATO member support. And given the weakness of their militaries, just how much actual rather than rhetorical support could the Europeans provide in the event of an attack? How many battle carrier groups does NATO possess? The Europeans can’t even afford cruise missiles.
Finally, the arguments for NATO are predicated on an either-or fallacy. If we don’t have the NATO alliance and the benefits it supposedly brings for collective security, then we’ll have nothing. But of course, if NATO disappeared tomorrow, the US would quickly sign bilateral and multilateral defense agreements with individual countries or groups of countries, including some current NATO members. The argument that without NATO our security would be endangered is as fallacious as the argument of the Remain faction in England that leaving the EU would put the UK in danger. A country as rich and powerful as the US will find no dearth of countries eager to bandwagon with it.
Trump’s critics continue to search for dubious reasons to justify sitting out the election or even voting for Hillary. There may be many reasons not to vote for Trump, but criticizing NATO isn’t one of them.