Trump's First NATO Summit: Don't Expect Much

Ceremonial rounds fired from M1A2 Abrams Tanks at the Adazi Training Area, Latvia. Flickr/U.S. Army Europe

National defense may be Trump’s priority, but it is one that few Europeans share, and that even fewer are willing to pay for.

When Donald Trump arrives at the NATO summit, it will have been hard on the heels of the release of his new budget for fiscal year 2018, which calls for a significant increase in defense spending, at the expense of many domestic programs. Although the FY 2018 proposed defense program falls far short of what candidate Trump promised in the event he were elected, at $603 billion it still represents a 6 percent increase over FY 2017 levels, and is $18.4 billion above the increase that the Obama administration had proposed for FY 2018. Last year the United States spent 3.6 percent of its gross domestic product on defense; the Trump budget proposal would increase that percentage.

Admittedly, both the Obama and the higher Trump totals exceed the budget caps set by the FY 2011 Budget Control Act (as modified by later compromises). Nevertheless, Trump can argue that he has begun to deliver on his promise of increasing the defense budget, and that if his request is not fully funded, that is the fault of the Congress and not of his administration. All of which is to say that Trump is now in a position to up the ante on those members of the NATO alliance that have yet to commit to defense spending amounting to 2 percent of their GDP by 2024, as they had agreed at NATO’s 2014 Wales summit.

President Trump is no longer arguing that NATO is obsolete. On that point he publicly reversed himself some months ago. Moreover, whatever his rhetoric and tweets, the president’s defense budget represents a harder line against Russia than the Kremlin would like to see. The budget includes the first stage in Trump’s promised increase of twenty thousand Army personnel; some of them would likely be deployed to Europe to participate in NATO exercises on territory that Moscow considers its “near abroad.” In addition, his defense request includes $4.8 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative, an increase over FY 2017 levels and a program specifically targeted against Russian adventurism. Under the ERI, the United States rotates an armored brigade into eastern Europe in addition to the two brigades permanently stationed on the continent.

Five NATO allies, notably Britain, France and Poland, as well as tiny Estonia, have already reached the 2 percent level. A few more, including Estonia’s Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, are committed to doing so by 2024 and have begun to ramp up their defense spending. So too have Sweden and Finland, non-NATO members but close partners of the alliance that have been alarmed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, and that fear Moscow’s intrusion into the Baltic states. Indeed, Sweden is bringing back conscription, which it had effectively terminated in 2010. Still, it is unclear how those NATO allies who have not yet committed themselves to the 2 percent goal, especially Germany, Spain and Italy, whose defense budgets hover around a meager 1 percent of GDP, will respond to the American president’s request for spending increases.

Recent polling has shown an increase in support for NATO both in the United States and in Europe. But support does not translate into spending. But these polls also show considerably less concern about Moscow in Germany, where only 40 percent of respondents would support their country’s committing itself militarily to defend a NATO ally that had been attacked by Russia. The figures in Spain are not much better: only 46 percent would be in favor of entering a conflict to help defend a NATO ally. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that only 45 percent of British respondents would support a NATO ally if attacked by Russia, while 43 percent registered their opposition.

In other words, regardless of his administration’s own proposed increases, there is no guarantee that the alliance’s laggards will ramp up their defense spending plans in response to the president’s demands. No doubt they will make the right noises about their budgets, and for an image-conscious president who seeks the appearance of “success” in every corner, that may be enough. But considering that many of the European allies have a history of falling short of their promises—few made good on their Cold War commitment to commit 3 percent of their GDP to their defense budgets—no one should expect any great upsurge in enthusiasm for defense spending. This is especially the case at a time when cost of welfare spending on the flood of immigrants from the Middle East shows no sign of diminishing anytime soon.

National defense may be Trump’s priority, but it is one that few Europeans share, and that even fewer are willing to pay for.

Dov S. Zakheim is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest. He was under secretary of defense (comptroller) from 2001 to 2004 and deputy under secretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985 to 1987.

Image: Ceremonial rounds fired from M1A2 Abrams Tanks at the Adazi Training Area, Latvia. Flickr/U.S. Army Europe