In the video above (at location 2:40) Tara Dowdell quotes Trump as stating the U.S. contributes 90% to NATO, and the actual number is only 22%. There are some misleading statistics at work here that need more analysis.
There are direct and indirect contributions to NATO. Direct contributions are made to finance requirements of the Alliance that serve the interests of all 29 members. They are not the responsibility of any single member. Costs are borne collectively, often using the principle of common funding.
The chart on the left shows direct contributions by NATO country. So here is Dowdell’s 22% figure. Germany, with 14%, carries the second largest burden.
But that does not represent the correct picture, and I believe that Trump didn’t refer to direct contributions. Trump often speaks inaccurately or imprecisely, to say the least, but I am sure that when he said that the United States contributes 90% of the cost of NATO, he meant the sum of the military spending goals of each country. So let’s analyze those separately.
I have been on record many times in this blog with posts about military spending of the United States. In this post of 2016 I show that the United States spends more on defense than the next nine countries combined. Trump’s increase of military spending this year of more than $70 billion alone is more than the entire military budget of Russia.
For NATO, the member countries agreed to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense. So the chart below is another matter entirely, and it shows the defense expenditures by NATO country as a share of the GDP in percent.
This chart is pulled from the NATO website where there is a wealth of information and many charts.
Here you can see that the United States is the only country that far exceeds the 2% mark. Only four countries are above this guideline. Besides the United States, those are Greece (surprisingly), the United Kingdom, and Estonia. Everyone else is below or way below 2%. Note that some countries, like Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Canada has significant increases since 2014. Trump tried to take credit for those increases recently, even though he had nothing to do with them. They were prompted by Obama pressure, and mostly by voluntary military buildup in the Baltic nations, which are close to Russia and feared Russian aggression after watching the Ukraine debacle.
Those are just percentages. When looking at the real numbers per country, the United States military spending in 2017 was $685 billion. The military spending of all other NATO countries combined was $271 billion. This means that the United States spent 71.7% of all military dollars of NATO. Not quite the 90% of Trump’s exaggeration, but a quite staggering amount.
Trump has said that “Germany owes the United States a trillion dollars for its defense.” This statement is obviously ludicrous. Nobody put a gun to the head of the United States and made it spend more on military than all other NATO countries combined. This has been going on for more than 70 years now. We all know about the $600 hammers and $10,000 toilet seats. I have been vocal in this blog about our defense budget and the price of a single F-35 fighter. Here is an interesting example about a $1200 coffee cup. The United States just loves its military and loves spending vast amounts of money on that military. Others simply can’t keep up, or don’t want to keep up.
NATO was created to form an alliance where all other members stand up for each other when one of them is attacked. After the end of World War II, that was critically important for the safety of Europe. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, I am sure it irked Russia that many of its satellites quickly switched sides and joined NATO, including Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Hungary. It didn’t look good for the Soviet ideology, and it does not look good for Russia today.
But in all those years the spirit of NATO was invoked only one time, and it was surprisingly in the defense of the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and what transpired after that.
The United States started what many consider an illegal war in Iraq, and many of the NATO allies came to support America. NATO members spent massive amounts of money and many of their soldiers died in Afghanistan and Iraq in alliance with the United States.
So who owes whom money?
The United States spends massive amounts of money on its military presence in Europe and Europe has started taking it for granted. I remember growing up as a boy in Germany in the 1960s. I lived in a city with a large American military presence. As post-war children, we never really understood why the Americans were there. To us, it had always been that way. Today, almost half of all Germans want the American army to leave. They don’t see the point anymore. I suspect the same is true in many other European countries.
Trump says that the current arrangement “is unfair to the American taxpayer.” Well, it may be unfair, but it’s not Germany sticking it to the American taxpayer, it’s the American Congress and the administration, and the past administrations, all spending way too much money on military – and thus taking value and prosperity away from the taxpayer. But then, of course, there is the military industrial complex, which feeds a large sector of our economy. Maybe war is good after all?
With our current commander-in-chief, I wonder if the United States would honor its NATO obligations if Russia were to suddenly invade the Baltic states, or Poland? Talk about a world crisis!
In the end, perhaps NATO has run its course. Trump may be on to something. Maybe it’s time to let it fizzle out.