Since practically the beginning of the Presidential race, Donald Trump has voiced his frustration with NATO. He’s talked about how unfair it is that most of the organization’s member countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to, while the United States picks up the slack. Several times, he even indicated that we wouldn’t honor the agreement to defend these countries unless they paid us what they owe. So what, exactly, is their fair share, and how—and to whom—aren’t they paying it?
NATO and Defense Spending
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization consists of 28 member countries, all of whom have pledged to defend one another in the event of an attack. The battle cry of, “If you attack one, you attack all,” was meant to deter other countries from preying on weaker nations and ultimately keep us from entering another world war.
One of the stipulations of NATO membership is that each country must spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense. Obviously, in this scenario, the United States ends up spending significantly more than most other countries, as our GDP is the highest of any NATO member.
Still, that is, in many ways, the purpose of NATO: for larger countries like the U.S. to defend smaller ones who can’t afford to spend as much. Their 2% spending is largely a gesture of good faith, to show that they’re ready to do their part, should the need ever arise.
Who Pays Their Fair Share?
The problem is, most NATO members aren’t pulling their weight. Only 5 of the 28 nations meet the 2% quota: The United States, Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Poland. Our own GDP has over three and a half percent devoted to defense, by far the most of any other NATO nation.
Several other nations, including Canada and Spain, spend less than 1% of their GDP on defense. Iceland spends a mere 0.1% and doesn’t even have their own army. Given this discrepancy, it’s easy to see why some believe the United States is picking up the slack for those who won’t pull their weight.
Donald Trump certainly thinks so. On the campaign trail, as well as during the debates, he talked extensively about these countries that aren’t paying their fair share, and said that, rather than defend any member nation automatically in an attack, he would first look to see what their contribution was to the group. At times, he even implied that these member countries should pay us directly if they wanted help from our superior defense capabilities.
Ironically, in over 50 years, NATO’s members have only been called upon to defend another nation once. And it wasn’t one of the weaker countries that doesn’t spend its fair share on defense. It was us. After the 9/11 attacks, NATO pledged its support in helping us defend ourselves against terrorism.
With unrest brewing in a number of countries, including Russia, there’s always the looming possibility of another attack, sometime in the next few years. Maybe it will be on us again, or perhaps on one of the smaller, weaker nations. If it happens to one of the countries not holding up their end of the bargain, it seems unlikely that Trump will step in to defend them. What will the consequences of this be, not only for that country and ours, but for the rest of the world? It’s difficult to say. But in any event, let’s hope it never comes to that.