The dominance of the US in NATO is strategically wanted by Washington. Europeans can therefore stay calm in the face of Trump’s threats to withdraw from the Alliance and devote themselves to their own priorities instead, Johannes Thimm explains.
Johannes Thimm works in the research group “America” of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP). The Foundation advises the German Bundestag and the Federal Government in matters of foreign and security policy.
With most NATO members, including Germany, spending less than two percent of their gross domestic product on defence, US President Donald Trump accuses Europe of exploiting the United States. He calls for a significant increase in defence budgets – most recently at four percent of GDP – and threatens that the US will fail to meet its own alliance obligations otherwise.
It is true that Europeans benefit from American security guarantees, and even the charge of “free-riding” is not entirely made up. Wrong, however, is that this is done to the detriment of the US. There are three important explanations for this.
NATO supports US hegemony in practical and ideological terms
Firstly, NATO is good business for Washington – even if you ignore values such as solidarity among its allies.
Americans who, like Trump, demand a fairer burden-sharing between the US and Europe, imply that the US supports NATO primarily for altruistic reasons, or for Europe’s sake. But this picture is incomplete. Because NATO serves as a catalyst for the military power of the United States. It gives legitimacy to the American position of undisputed strength.
European allies are involved in numerous missions, such as in Afghanistan, while the US is setting the direction. US military bases in Europe serve not only to defend Europe but also as logistical hubs and bases for US operations in the Middle East.
The US is planning its defence independently of Europe
Second, the US defence budget does not depend on Europe’s military spending. It is misleading to claim that Europe has to spend more so the US can save. The Pentagon’s budget is based on the US government’s assessment of the capabilities needed to maintain the strategic dominance of the United States – not only in the alliance.
When Congress passes the annual defence budget, European spending plays a minor role. In 2017, President Trump raised the budget, even though Europeans spent more on defence – and Russia’s budget fell 20% compared to the previous year.
According to calculations by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the US expenditures for NATO and Europe’s defence of $30 billion is just over five percent of its defence budget.
If one compares about $240 billion of European spending on NATO to this $30 billion, the imbalance does not seem that big anymore. Also, given these figures, it is hard to argue that the US defence budget went up to around $600 billion mainly on account of the missing contributions of Europeans.
Looking specifically at the cost of the US nuclear arsenal, it becomes even clearer how detached the US budget is from the burden-sharing in NATO.
Washington also sets the US nuclear strategy regardless of European policy. Over the next 30 years, the US government wants to spend $400 billion on modernisation, in addition to the cost of preserving the nuclear arsenal, a massive, qualitative expansion of nuclear capabilities.
This was partly a reaction to the Russian aggression in Ukraine but above all a concession by President Obama to the Republican Congress in exchange for agreeing to the 2014 New START treaty, in which the US and Russia pledged to decrease the number to limit their strategic nuclear warheads.
If Trump was really interested to reduce arms spending, he would make serious efforts in nuclear arms control. However, he rejected Russia’s offer to extend the New START treaty beyond its expiration in 2021 and instead aims to increase nuclear spending by nearly 20%.
The imbalance in defence spending is thus not only a result of European austerity but also arises from the US strategy of having unattainable military and nuclear capabilities.
The nuclear superiority of the USA is the core principle of NATO
This leads to the third point. It is part of NATO’s core that the US extends its nuclear umbrella to European NATO members.
The principle of collective security under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty stands and falls with the nuclear deterrence, which is mainly based on American nuclear weapons.
Everyone should know that an armed attack on a NATO member could trigger a nuclear war, and the option is therefore not very tempting.
American taxpayers are at considerable cost to maintain the nuclear arsenal, but on the one hand, no one in the US would be willing to forego nuclear superiority, and on the other hand, the protection guarantee prevents other countries from seeking nuclear weapons themselves (the same logic applies to US alliances with Japan and South Korea).
Because Trump has repeatedly questioned this model, demands are now being made in Asia and Europe for their own nuclear weapons. It is doubtful whether US interests would be better served if a nuclear arms race broke out in Europe or Asia.
Most security policy actors in the US are well aware of this, and hardly anyone supports Trump’s questioning of alliance solidarity. Europe is well advised to follow its own priorities in improving its seriously flawed military capabilities. Not least, it should be a matter of reducing dependence on the US on security issues beyond collective defence.
However, the periodically occurring straw fires from the White House can be safely ignored. Reaching the two percent target will neither appease Trump nor make Europe safer.
The article was published on the SWP website under the heading “kurz gesagt”.