Trump’s Dangerous Game: Uncertain Collective Security As NATO Members Told To “Pay Up”

In a combative speech at the opening of NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels, US President Donald Trump told the leaders of NATO’s member states that he expected them to increase their defense spending considerably. Trump’s request echoes earlier suggestions by former Presidents Bush and Obama that NATO members ought to contribute more to collective defense by strengthening their militaries.

Formed during the Cold War, NATO was intended to ensure the security of Western Europe against the Soviet Union. While NATO performs a number of functions, the most significant of these is the guaranteeing of collective security to all member states through Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that an attack on any member state shall be responded to by all other member states.

Today, as during the Cold War, NATO’s primary function is in protecting European countries from Russian expansionism. While NATO’s collective defense mechanism has been effective in protecting European countries (no NATO member has been invaded), the United States Government has long argued that it pays too much, allowing other countries to skimp on their spending. During his speech, Trump stated, “NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations, for 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense.”

President Trump’s claim is partially correct. NATO asks members to maintain their own national militaries and to contribute to maintaining a collective defence force (though these expenses are minuscule compared to the domestic military spending of NATO states). While the US is the largest contributor to NATO with just under $500 Million per year given, this number is not out of proportion to the U.S.’s economy, which dwarfs those of its European Allies. While Trump’s claim may not apply to direct contributions to NATO, it is more relevant to the military spending of NATO members. In 2006, NATO leaders agreed that all member states should attempt to spend 2% of GDP on defense, and while this figure has never been binding, NATO leaders agreed to meet it by 2024 in the aftermath of Crimea’s annexation. Currently, only 5 of NATO’s 28 members meet this standard.

These 5 members consist of the United States, Britain, Poland, Estonia, and Greece; a group of nations spurred on by their own desire for influence, or out of necessity, given their proximity to aggressor states like Russia and Turkey. By encouraging Europe to step up its spending, the President is playing a dangerous game. As he suggested in Brussels, NATO states would have benefitted from $119 billion in additional military spending last year if European states met this benchmark. That money would undoubtedly help Eastern and Northern European states who have long feared Russian aggression. At the same time, it is understandable that President Trump, whose country has spent 3.5%-5% of GDP on defense over the last ten years, would wish to see other countries contributing their share. However, the protection NATO promises to member states is contingent on the credibility of Article 5. With Trump frequently questioning whether stingy countries deserve protection, and refusing to state his support for the principle of collective defense in Brussels this past week, that blanket of protection looks threadbare.