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July 10, 2018

Are Most NATO Members Defense-Deadbeats?

 

President Donald Trump has a message for the majority of members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: Spend what you pledged on national defense. 

It’s an important message in these troubled times, especially with the Russian bear once again on the prowl. 

Trump’s issue is the money member countries pledged to spend on their own defense. At the 2014 NATO summit, members pledged to stop cutting defense spending and move toward spending 2 percent of their respective GDPs by 2024. 

Of the 29 NATO members, only six—the U.S. (3.5% of GDP), Greece (3.2%), Estonia and the United Kingdom (both 2.14%), Romania (2.02%) and Poland (2.01%)—met or exceeded that obligation last year. 

Of the six countries meeting their commitments, four are smaller economies. 

Meanwhile, economic powerhouse Germany spent 1.22 percent of its GDP on defense in 2017, Canada 1.31 percent, France 1.79 percent, and Spain 0.92 percent. 

The current secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, says member nations are increasing their defense spending and will meet the 2024 goal. Maybe, but political pain deferred often becomes pain ignored. Just look at Congress’s tendency to postpone spending cuts, and then change the law when the due date arrives. 

What we have here is a variation of the tragedy of the commons, defined as “a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action.” 

The “shared resource” is NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense clause. NATO explains, “Collective defence [sic] means that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.” 

The “self-interest” stems from the fact that a country spending less that 2 percent of GDP on defense has more money to spend on other, more politically popular priorities. The “depleted resource” is a common multi-national security. 

Low defense spending could be seen by potential adversaries as a sign of weakness or lack of resolve. 

Of course, even if NATO members do step up and meet their 2 percent obligation, that doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. will spend less. The U.S. and our allies have a vested interest in the U.S. remaining the world’s top military power.  

The president tends to address these issues in a very combative way. It’s unclear whether that is the best approach.  

What is clear is that the president is highlighting an important point: some NATO countries have become defense deadbeats.


 

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