National Security & Defense

How Trump Should Reform NATO

Army 173rd Airborne paratroopers depart Latvia following NATO exercises in 2014. (Photo: US Army Europe)
It’s time for our allies to meet their defense-spending target of 2 percent of their GDP.

Speaking five years ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned Europe to increase defense spending or prepare for a Trump-like Presidency. Americans, he said, might soon elect a leader intolerant of defense free riders:

The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense. . . . Future U.S. political leaders — those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.

Come January 20, 2017, the Gates prophecy will be realized.

European leaders have entered the whirlwind. President of the E.U. Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, summed up the emotion when he threatened that Trump’s election might change U.S.-E.U. relations “fundamentally and structurally.” The E.U. would “need to teach the president-elect what Europe is and how it works,” said a typically self-impressed Juncker. German chancellor Angela Merkel warns that future relations with the U.S. will be conditioned on Trump’s conduct.

Still, E.U. leaders are far more anxious than they are angry. They know that they ignored Gates’s 2011 challenge and that now it has bitten them.

But for Europe and America, and all those who value the stable peace that NATO serves, Trump’s victory can be a positive. We can hope that Trump, who is now receiving high-level intelligence Presidential Daily Briefs, has woken up about Russia, that he now realizes Russia’s geopolitical interests are not America’s. If so, Trump has a unique opportunity to strengthen NATO and make it fairer for the American people.

For a start, Trump should use his inaugural address to express a realist commitment to global stability. Charting a middle ground between the first Bush administration’s neoconservatism and the Obama administration’s prevaricating appeasement, Trump should recognize his indispensible role as leader of the free world. In doing so, he’ll quickly consolidate those who feared he would render himself a puppet for Putin. Speed matters. If Trump hesitates, U.S. allies and enemies will make policy without regard to U.S. interests. How do we know this? Because it’s exactly what happened under President Obama.

A declaration of intent by Trump would also give him the diplomatic capital to call for a new globalism — a new international order that respects national sovereignty but expects shared sacrifices within alliances. Trump should then call on all NATO member states and conflict-threatened U.S. allies — such as Japan, whom the United States defends against China — to spend the NATO target of at least 2 percent of their annual GDP on defense by 2019 (South Korea already spends 2 percent). Finally, Trump should state that he’ll respect the sovereign choices of each nation, but that those who prefer other spending priorities should expect a changed relationship with America.

The need for action is clear. In 2016, according to NATO figures, just five of the alliance’s 28 member states will meet its 2 percent GDP defense-spending target. The U.S. will spend 3.61 percent GDP, Greece 2.38 percent, the UK 2.21 percent, Estonia 2.16 percent, and Poland 2 percent. If bankrupt Greece and tiny Estonia can meet the 2 percent burden, other member states have no excuses not to. But the real scandal is what other E.U. states are spending. Next up on the list is France at 1.78 percent, Turkey at 1.56 percent, and Norway at 1.54 percent. Germany, which has the largest economy in Europe? It spends just 1.19 percent of its GDP on defense. It gets worse. The Netherlands and Denmark each spend 1.17 percent, Spain spends 0.91 percent, and the effective terrorist sanctuary of Belgium allocates only 0.85 percent.

These statistics are military and political breaching points in Western security. They attest to immense arrogance. Today, the vast majority of wealthy E.U. nations continue to believe that American taxpayers and service personnel should bear the burden Europe’s security. There’s a putrid immorality at work here. After sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives in two wars on the European continent, then rebuilding that same continent (the Marshall Plan), then protecting Western Europe from Soviet invasion, the E.U. continues to rely on what it calls stupid, fat Americans to pay for its security.

After sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives in two wars on the European continent, the E.U. continues to rely on what it calls stupid, fat Americans to pay for its security.

Nevertheless, Some individuals fear that if nations failed to meet the 2 percent target by 2019, Russia might take that failure as an invitation to invade. Fortunately, these fears fail the test of reality. First off, there are already signs that things are moving in the right direction. Joining Estonia on NATO’s northern Baltic flank, Latvia and Lithuania are already increasing defense spending. They should easily make the 2 percent commitment by 2019. On the central flank, Poland already spends 2 percent, and Romania has also said that it will hit 2 percent next year. That leaves NATO’s southern flank: Turkey. And Turkey’s options in NATO are actually quite simple. If Erdogan decides to ascribe to NATO democratic values and commitments, he can match 2 percent in short order. Alternatively, he can avoid 2 percent spending and prove his commitment to domestic autocracy and Putin’s foreign policy. U.S. interests require that Erdogan cannot have it both ways.

What if France, Italy, and Germany refuse to meet the 2 percent target? Simple. We should state that our NATO commitments to mutual security will remain but that we intend to remove all military bases from locales that spend less than 2 percent. Those bases should be relocated in Poland and other states that have proved their commitment to the alliance.

Regardless, there is a great opportunity here. Two percent of GDP is not a lot of money for rich E.U. nations (just look at their welfare budgets). American allies have too long assumed that no president would ever shake the status quo. Trump has changed that. Acting with prudent new awareness, Trump can now reform NATO and strengthen the free world. As the saying goes, only Nixon could go to China.

 Perhaps only Trump can reform NATO.

Tom Rogan — Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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