In an otherwise off the wall press conference today with the President Iohannis of Romania, President Trump agreed, after more hemming and hawing, to pledge his support for Article #5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – the essential provision which commits each member of NATO to the common defense of all. But there was another part of Trump’s comments which I’ve seen less mention of. Trump said not only that NATO members must get to the 2 percent of GDP expenditure on defense goal, which itself was only recently agreed to. He suggested that countries not spending 2 percent of GDP might have to pay the US back for previous underpayment.
Here’s the key passage …
TRUMP: One of the things I was referring to during that speech was the fact that, yes, they haven’t paid what they should be paying now, but for many years, they haven’t been paying. So I said, do we ever go back and say, how about paying the money from many, many years passed?
Now, I know no President has ever asked that question. But I do. And we’re going to make NATO very strong. We need the money to make it strong. You can’t just do what we’ve been doing in the past. So I did say, yes, you haven’t paid this year, but what about the past years, the many past years where you haven’t paid? Perhaps you should pay some or all of that money back.
There are several things going on here. It’s worth picking them apart. No under-spending NATO member owes the US any money. These aren’t fees owed to the US. In 2014, in the aftermath of the Russian annexation of Ukraine, NATO members agreed to work toward a goal of spending at the 2 percent level over the next decade. The theory is that if each country has spending at that level it will be able to mount some level of defense on its own and not be entirely dependent on NATO. Having each member funding a robust military also makes each country more valuable in joint operations. Whether the 2 percent goal is high or low or arbitrary, the concept is straightforward. But none of this is about making payments or being behind on payments to the United States. Indeed, since the agreement was to reach that goal over a decade, no one is really even behind.
But there’s something deeper going on here. It was good to see President Trump state his support for Article #5. But with this riff on back payments, Trump is making a nonsensical demand which none of these countries will, should or even can agree to. It’s not even clear how they would agree. There’s no mechanism or formula to pay anything. There’s no amount owed. It sounds much more to me like Trump is simply trying to up the ante, make demands which by design cannot be met.
Remember, Trump isn’t the first President who wants NATO members to budget more for their own militaries. Presidents Bush and Obama wanted the same. And with all his bluster and scare tactics Trump’s clearly gotten member countries’ attention. It is probably true that we will see more focus on hitting that 2 percent metric than we were before. If the tough talk were simply a way to get member countries to move toward what they’ve already agreed to, Trump could declare victory and be done with it. If that were the strategy and goal, it’s already had some success. But he’s not. He’s upping the ante, making new demands, like an ultimatum that is designed to be refused or cannot be met.
Whether this move is driven by ideology or hostility toward NATO or simply Trump’s personality, the constant need to dominate and lash out, I’m not really sure. Either could explain it. Indeed, whether there is a corrupt bargain with Russia involved, I do believe President Trump is hostile to NATO and seeks to weaken it to curry favor with Russia. Set aside the ‘why’ though and focus on the ‘what’. President Trump is upping his demands in response to signs Europeans are willing to move more quickly to hit the 2 percent goal. It seems clear that he plans to keep upping his demands to keep the alliance off balance and, most likely, finally force a refusal which can justify some future act against the alliance.