By Former ATA President Ambassador Robert Hunter for the Atlantic Treaty Association
Last week, the senior leadership of the new Trump Administration turned out in full force in Europe to try reassuring anxious allies about the continued strong commitment of the United States to European security and to transatlantic relations overall. To the extent we can make judgments based largely on media reporting, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the right things to his colleagues at the NATO Defense Ministers meeting in Brussels about the “rock solid” US defense commitment and continued implementation of decisions taken at the 2014 and 2016 NATO summits in the wake of Russian military aggression in Ukraine. He and Vice President Mike Pence did the same thing at the 53rd annual Munich Security Conference last weekend – the defense and foreign policy equivalent of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Many important people from more than 100 countries spoke at the Munich conference, including the German Federal Chancellor and her key ministers, the British, French, Russian, and Chinese foreign ministers, as well as leaders from many other countries from around Europe and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the newly-minded US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, went to Bonn, Germany, for a meeting of the Group of Twenty leading economic nations to talk about the state of the global economy, including what is happening within the less affluent members. He had less to say publicly than did his Defense Department colleague and the US Vice President and thus was overshadowed by them both. (Notably, the new head of the Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly was also in Munich, which was appropriate given that a key issue now facing the West is the threat from terrorism.)
All this US “show and tell” was important to demonstrate, to the degree that can be done, where the American “heart really lies” in terms of the priority that the new administration in Washington will give to European matters and the depth of the US commitment to transatlantic relations. Whether or not then-candidate Donald Trump was quoted correctly about NATO on the campaign trail last year, the line that came across in Europe was his assertion that “NATO is obsolete.” Arguably, he was not referring to NATO as a whole but rather to its not being engaged as an alliance in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq — an accurate assessment. (A few of the allies are, individually, minimally engaged militarily in the fight against ISIS.) When matters of this political sensitivity are involved, however, precision is important, as President Trump has still not fully learned.
Europeans who tend at the best of times to worry about every new US administration may not have been completely reassured last week by what they heard from the visiting Americans; and before making any clear judgments, they will wait to hear what President Trump says when he travels to Brussels in May for a previously-scheduled NATO summit. Basically, however, his surrogates in Europe last week at least exceeded the minimum standard required, even though their presentations broke little new policy ground.
There are some caveats, however. One of the central points made by all the US participants in the European meetings was that the non-American members of NATO need to spend more money on defense. As Secretary Mattis put the point most clearly to NATO Defense ministers in Brussels:
No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of western values….Americans cannot care more for your children’s security than you do. Disregard for military readiness demonstrates a lack of respect for ourselves, for the Alliance, and for the freedoms we inherited, which are now clearly threatened.
He was referring most specifically to a NATO goal, proclaimed most forcefully in a speech by former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates just before he left office in 2011, that all the allies should spend at least 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense. This has now become a firm pledge by members of the alliance. In fact, as when Gates spoke to his NATO colleagues in 2011, only 5 of NATO’s 28 countries have met that standard (more about that below), although at the last NATO summit in Warsaw last year, they collectively agreed that all the allies should meet the goal within a decade and they agreed at the Brussels Defense Ministers’ meeting to have a plan for more rapid progress by the end of this year.
The basic point being made by the American leaders is twofold: first, that there needs to be more military capability within NATO for it to be able, as an alliance, to meet the threats and challenges, notably posed by Russia and Middle East-based terrorism; and second, that the European allies and Canada need to show the US Congress that they are pulling their weight and not leaving so much of the work to the United States. According to Britain’s Defense Minister, Mattis said at the Defense Ministers’ meeting that “Congress will not continue to tolerate unequal burden-sharing.”
What the US Defense Secretary and other US officials are referring to has two components. The first is the distribution within the alliance of its direct costs – that is, what it costs to run the institution, primarily through its three basic budgets: military, civilian and infrastructure (the last called the NATO Security Investment Programme.) The United States pays more than another other ally, at about 22%. But this figure is what the NATO allies have agreed to be a “fair share,” based on the relative GDP of each member state. In this sense, the US is not being “overcharged.”
Furthermore, the total amount of direct NATO spending is only about $2.6 billion a year, which is a small fraction of defense spending by the allies, most of which goes for “indirect” elements of defense – that is, what individual nations spend on their own forces within their own defense budgets.
Here is where the big argument takes place and the big discrepancies are found among countries. Of the 5 countries that meet the 2% goal, one — Greece – does so primarily because of its concerns about Turkey; another, Britain, has just hit the mark, although that point is disputed by some experts, who see Britain as just under the magic number and believe it had to do some fast-footwork with its defense budget to get over the NATO threshold.
It can also be argued that even the United States does not meet the 2% goal. This seems absurd on the face of it, since the United States spends more on defense than any other country in the world by a significant margin, currently measured at about 3.61% of its GDP. But that defense spending is for its world-wide deployments and world-wide commitments. By contrast, other NATO allies, save for Britain and France, that do see themselves as having broader engagements beyond Europe and environs, are essentially “regional” powers, even when they become engaged militarily in limited ways outside of Europe. Only a relatively small fraction of US military capabilities is directly committed to Europe on a day-to-day basis, although much more could become engaged if there were a palpable threat to European security. Then the “big battalions” would be brought to bear, including not just ground forces but also some major portion of America’s air armadas (Navy and Air Force) and – potentially, if things came to that – its nuclear arsenal, though one hopes only in a deterrent role.
But even with these qualifications—the “worst-case scenario” – it is hard to argue that the United States devotes 2% of its GDP on defense spending to European contingencies, or even close to it. Thus Washington’s argument that 23 of the 27 other allies are not meeting their responsibilities, based on defense spending at the 2% of GDP level, is not particularly convincing, although no ally has yet made this point, at least not in public.
Nor should the size of defense spending necessarily be the only standard for defense contributions that individual allies make to alliance security. After all, how much money is spent on defense does not by itself connote how much usable military capability is actually created. Some allies have organized their military capacities in ways that, as Secretary Gates acknowledged in 2011, enable them to “punch well above their weight.” Furthermore, the deterrent capacity of NATO, even against an expansionist Russia, is enhanced significantly by alliance political solidarity, a factor that does not depend on simple calculations of military budgets.
Nor does the size of military budgets account for other things that allied nations do to provide security for themselves and others, especially given that many European states are involved in operations conducted by the European Union, notably in Africa, that relieve the United States (and NATO itself) of that burden. It also does not account for monies and other economic instruments that European countries devote to bolstering the economies and political development of Central European states, including Ukraine, activities which certainly contribute to “security” even if not directly being “defense.”
Furthermore, every single member of the NATO alliance sent military and other security personnel to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), essentially in support of US policy, even though very few of the allied countries believed that their military engagement there was necessary to keep terrorism from their shores (terrorist incidents in Western Europe have been mainly sourced out of the Middle East states and the Islamic State, with very little of this terrorism related to Afghanistan). Rather, virtually all the allies took part in ISAF in an effort to ensure that the United States would remain committed to Europe, notably to provide reassurance against threats Russia might someday pose but, at the time, had not yet done so.
The vigor and persistence with which the United States has made a fuss over the 2% goal can also have untoward consequences. When NATO declares a goal and only 5 of 28 countries meet it, that is obviously a sign not of allied strength, but of weakness – which is not a good image for NATO to be projecting in public and indeed emphasizing. Second, there have been statements, not just hints, by American officials that, if the Europeans don’t meet the 2% goal, the United States might, as Secretary Mattis said in Brussels “moderate its commitment.” That is risky business. The essence of the NATO Treaty’s Article 5 commitment, the “three musketeers” agreement that all member countries will support any ally that suffers external aggression, must be absolute in order to be credible. To make the commitment conditional, for whatever reason, potentially weakens its effect and, if pushed too far, could vitiate it. Secretary Mattis no doubt did not mean to give that impression, but that is what his words meant. Of course, now that successive US administrations have nailed their colors to the mast of the 2% goal, it has acquired political significance that cannot be ignored.
Further regarding the Trump Administration officials’ European tour, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was essentially in what, in bureaucratese, is called a “listening mode.” That is not ever a good thing for a US Secretary of State to do when abroad, given that allies still expect the United States to exercise leadership in the Alliance. This “listening mode” is also what happened in January 1977, when Vice President Walter Mondale was sent at the beginning of the Carter administration to meet with leaders in Europe. The administration had no firm plans for transatlantic relations at that point, as opposed to obligatory assurances, and the allies were nonplussed by what they believed was a lack of US leadership, however much that expectation was premature at that early point in the new administration. Something similar happened to a new Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, in 1993. In both cases, it took some considerable time and effort for the United States to demonstrate to allies that it was ready to do the “right thing” by its NATO allies. The problem this time is even more significant, given European uncertainties about President Trump. The roles played in Europe last week by the US Vice President and Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security were important; but the relatively passive role of the secretary of state, at least in public, did lead to some eye-brow raising. It is compounded by the fact that not a single senior official has yet been appointed to a State Department post or even nominated; and only one person has so far been confirmed by the Senate as an ambassador (Nikki Haley at the United Nations). This is not good from the standpoint of fostering confidence abroad in the State Department and its secretary as leavening agents in juxtaposition to President Trump’s White House staff.
Still, these are “early days.” None of these factors need have significant consequences for the future; not even the lack, so far, of anything approaching a coherent US approach to Russia: expecting a fully-fledged policy on such a complex and consequential matter so early in the new administration would be unrealistic, as important as the issues involved clearly are. So much still depends on decisions that President Trump will take, where making confident predictions is a fool’s game, and on the roles that his cabinet-level appointees in foreign policy and national security are able to play.
In sum, the visit by the Trump administration’s team in Europe last week can be rated as having been both positive and workmanlike, in the attempt to shore up transatlantic relations, although these senior officials had little to say to anxious allies beyond general reassurance about US fealty to transatlantic relations. No doubt, President Trump will have his work cut out for him when he visits Europe in May and, before that, as he develops concrete policies and approaches to critical issues facing the Alliance, notably regarding Russia.