His comments might have been clumsy, but we can’t ignore that the alliance is outdated.
In Cleveland to formally accept the Republican nomination for president two weeks ago, Donald Trump—as ever—made waves. The controversy this time stemmed from remarks made to The New York Times in which he indicated a Trump White House might not feel particularly bound to the United States’ NATO alliance obligations.
Asked about how he would respond to hypothetical Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, Trump said in comments he reiterated this week that his America would come to NATO allies’ defense if and only if “they fulfill their obligations to us.” Trump conceded he would “prefer to be able to continue” existing alliances, but refused to make any promises not dependent on allies’ good behavior.
Trump is mocked for his foreign policy knowledge, and the D.C. establishment has reacted with horror at the idea of the U.S. pulling back from the alliance. But if we dismiss him, we miss an important point: It is time for a rethink of NATO, and the conversation shouldn’t be whether to reshape our commitment, but how.
NATO has gradually become a liability for Americans—and Europeans, too—by abandoning its original goal of defending Europe in favor of imprudent, U.S.-funded adventures in the Middle East and on the eastern front. While it would be irresponsible to suggest that the United States should simply ignore its treaty obligations at will, today’s geopolitical realities call for a reorientation of NATO’s priorities toward defense, strictly defined and funded by a continent more than capable of taking care of itself.
Let’s begin with burden-sharing. NATO requires member states to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, but as of 2015, NATO Europe averaged less than 1.5 percent even as the United States paid more than double the minimum. In fact, per capita, the U.S. devotes about $2,000 annually to military spending, while our European counterparts average less than $500 a pop (at the low end, Bulgaria spends only $89 per capita). This ongoing failure strikes at the heart of the alliance’s credibility and obscures the fact that Europe is no longer in a fragile, post-war state dependent on American largesse.
To be sure, there’s a strong case to be made that U.S. military spending is a mess, rife with waste, error, outdated assumptions and facilities, and a thorough lack of accountability. Yet one need not agree that reform and reduction is needed on our end to recognize that the present arrangement is a de facto subsidy of the European welfare state: Because America spends so much on guns, European governments can safely allot more to butter.
Arguably more important than the money, however, is the issue of NATO’s purpose in the 21st century. The alliance was created in an era when conventional ground war against state actors was the name of the game, and the prospect of warding off the now-extinct Soviet Union is very different from the national security challenges of 2016. Indeed, “The difference between 1949 and [today] is that present-day Europe is more than capable of addressing today’s threat, without American assistance or supervision,” as military historian and veteran Andrew Bacevich has persuasively argued. “Collectively, the Europeans don’t need U.S. troops or dollars.”
This outdated arrangement has allowed NATO to shift its mission from serving as a bulwark against the Soviet Union to acting as a bulldozer for Western democracy, pushing ever eastward in a process modern Russia inevitably interprets as aggression. In its current formulation, NATO forces world powers recklessly close to the precipice of outright—and unnecessary—war.
A modernized NATO capable of addressing the challenges of the 21st century must be reformed in four ways. First, the burden-sharing agreement as spelled out in the NATO charter must be enforced. Since this would merely be a recommittal to extant rules, it should hardly be a radical prospect.
Second, NATO Europe must recognize that—particularly once European defense spending is brought up to that minimum—it outmatches any military threat Russia might pose. This likewise ought to be a fairly mundane point, as it requires only an honest recognition of an imbalance in Europe’s favor which exists even without that first step.
As Vice Admiral Frank Pandolfe, director for strategic plans and policy for the Joint Staff, testified to the House Armed Service Committee, Russia today is “a regional power” with “a military of uneven readiness.” Though some troops and equipment are certainly impressive, it “suffers from corruption and its logistical capabilities are limited. Aging equipment and infrastructure, fiscal challenges, and demographic and social problems will continue to hamper reform efforts.” Though it is true Russia presently spends more on its military than any single NATO Europe member, the top three spenders—the U.K., France and Germany—together dwarf Russian spending (even after recent cuts) and do so using about half as much of their GDP. (Russia must spend over 5 percent of GDP to drop $66 billion on its military annually; the U.K., France, and Germany average less than 3 percent to together spend $144 billion.) They have room to escalate where Russia does not.
The third move is a conscious reorientation away from offense endeavors. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has been a vocal and prescient critic of NATO on this point where Russia is concerned. “The one thing we shouldn’t do now is inflame the [Russia] situation with loud saber-rattling and warmongering,” he said after a recent increase of NATO troops along the Poland-Russia boundary. “Anyone who thinks a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is wrong,” he added. “We would be well advised not to provide a pretext to renew an old confrontation.”
Fourth and finally, as Europe belatedly comes into its own, the United States should commit to winding down our influence and contribution to NATO over the next decade. Importantly, this does not mean that the U.S. must leave the alliance altogether. Though listing it fourth may suggest this is a successive step, it must start concurrently with the first—or else the first may never happen at all.
To borrow Bacevich’s words, “Only if Washington makes it clear that the era of free-riding has ended will Europe grow up.” But grow up it must, as maintaining overwhelming U.S. responsibility for NATO is neither needed by Europe nor helpful to us. It would serve both continents well if Europe learned to better tend to its own defense.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared in Time magazine, Relevant magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.