NATO's worst fears
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 by 12 Western nations (today totalling 26 member states) as a military alliance for a collective self-defense against Soviet aggression and, until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO’s worst fears could be summed up in two words: Warsaw Pact.
The alliance has grown to a total of 29 member states and nowadays, it seems, two other words have come to represent NATO’s worst fears: Donald Trump. In the run-up to the 11-12 July 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, the President reiterated his concern that U.S. allies, including Canada, are not pulling their weight.
In sharply-worded letters to Canada’s Prime Minister and several other NATO leaders ahead of the 29-nation Summit, Trump said the U.S. is fed up with the shortfall. It’s a familiar complaint which dates to his presidential candidacy days.
In his letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (who has repeatedly said that Canada contributes to NATO in non-monetary ways), Trump called Canada “one of our most capable allies and a leader in world security,” but noted that failure to spend at least 2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence “undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also are not meeting their defence spending commitments.”
The Defence Department’s director of communications, Renée Filiatrault, says Canada’s “rigorously costed” spending plan “upholds our long-standing role as an active contributor to global peace and security.” A former senior public diplomacy officer with Task Force Kandahar, Filiatrault also points out that Canada’s contribution to “every NATO operation since the founding of the alliance” is “a tangible signal of our commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance.”
Trump’s letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel (excerpts of which also found their way into the media) was more combative. “As we discussed during your visit in April, there is growing frustration in the United States that some allies have not stepped up as promised,” Trump wrote. “The United States continues to devote more resources to the defense of Europe when the Continent’s economy, including Germany’s, are [sic] doing well and security challenges abound. This is no longer sustainable for us.” Moreover, he admonished that “continued German underspending on defense undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also do not plan to meet their military spending commitments, because others see you as a role model.”
The U.S. contribution to NATO represented 3.57% of its GDP, continuing a long-established pattern that flowed from its Cold War apprehensions about communism and the Warsaw Pact. Canada’s commitment also reflected that apprehension, peaking at 7.4% of its national GDP in the early 1950s before declining steadily (except for a couple of brief upticks in the last decade) to 1.0% in 2013 and 2014.
The 2% metric was set at a 2014 summit in Wales, at which time members agreed to “aim to move toward” spending at least that amount of their national GDP on defence and, as of 2017, only the U.S., Greece (2.36), the United Kingdom (2.12), and Estonia (2.08) had managed to comply. Poland ranked a marginal fifth at 1.99%.
Canada’s 1.29% was good for only 15th place in a table prepared for the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, appended to a report the committee released on the eve of the NATO Summit. In the report entitled: Canada and NATO: An Alliance Forged in Strength and Reliability, the committee called on the government to “take steps to meet the 2014 Wales Summit target” and urged the establishment of “a contributions measurement system” rather than the standard 2% metric.
Insisting that “the NATO political, military and economic alliance remains important […] in today’s highly complex and unpredictable international security environment”, the committee also recommended, among other things: a continued leadership role in Latvia; an increased presence at NATO headquarters; more participation in the alliance’s planning process; the revitalization of its role as a NATO-wide training resource; and naval fleet expansion (which would include submarines capable of operating under ice).
Few, if any, of the recommendations come without significant cost, but there’s no gainsaying that capital investment in many of Canada’s National Defence elements have been falling short of the department’s own plans. In fact, for years DND has had political and bureaucratic difficulties spending its capital budget due to delays.
Canada did agree to the 2% goal in 2014, but that was a commitment by the Conservatives under Stephen Harper. The Liberals under Trudeau have projected an increase to 1.4% by 2024 and, while the percentage gain might seem modest, it’s more significant in both absolute terms and its ambition.
The Strong, Secure, Engaged policy document, released by Defence Minister Sajjan in 2017, projects the annual cash outlay to grow to $32.7 billion in 2026-2027 from $18.9 billion in 2016-2017, an increase of more than 70%. That would translate into a total available to the DND of some $553 billion over the decade.
During a pre-Summit visit to Canadian Armed Forces personnel in Latvia, Trudeau said that 2% is “an important metric […] to gauge how countries are doing in terms of contributors.” Ultimately though, he said it is more important that NATO allies contribute “the kinds of resources and demonstrat[e] the kind of commitment to the alliance that always needs to be there.” On that basis, “that’s a metric by which Canada can be extraordinarily proud.”
Trump’s own Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, A. Wess Mitchell, acknowledged in a speech several weeks before the Summit, that the alliance’s financial performance was improving. “The number allocating at least 20% of their military spending to major equipment purchases has more than doubled (from 14 to 26),” he said. “And the alliance as a whole has increased military spending by 5.2% (or $14.4 billion) – the largest one-year surge in defense spending in a generation.”
NATO’s collective spending last year totalled US$917 billion, some 67% of it accounted for by the U.S. defence budget, most of which is earmarked for its own protection, not NATO’s. But the U.S. does contribute the most, in absolute and percentage terms to the alliance, as the President continues to highlight.
In one of his characteristic morning social media postings, just ahead of the Summit, Trump correctly stated that the U.S. spends “far more on NATO” than any other country. Decrying this as unfair, he also said NATO benefits Europe “far more that it does the U.S.” and claimed that “by some accounts the U.S. is paying for 90 percent of NATO.”
Typically, he wasn’t clear whose “accounts” those were. NATO has a budget for common civilian as well as military elements, and some of its assets (such as airborne early warning platforms flown by multinational aircrews) are commonly funded. While the U.S. does cover 22% of those costs, using a formula based on national incomes, all of its allies are up to date.
That didn’t stem the tide of Trump rhetoric at the Brussels Summit, where his presence served to highlight divisions within the alliance. Ironically, that could be seen as playing into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made no secret of his goal of undermining NATO.
Rhetoric notwithstanding, Trump is officially committed to NATO, a point stressed by his hawkish National Security Advisor, John Bolton. “The president wants a strong NATO,” the former Ambassador to the United Nations said in a televised interview. “If you think Russia’s a threat, ask yourself this question: Why is Germany spending less than 1.2% of its GNP? When people talk about undermining the NATO alliance, you should look at those who are carrying out steps that make NATO less effective militarily.”
On the first day of the Summit, the U.S. leader literally doubled down, suggesting that the allies boost their individual spending by 4% of GDP. He dealt this card during a closed-door session – a move which only exacerbated the tension. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said, understatedly, that the mood “wasn’t the most pleasant” and that he and the others were left “in a confused state.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former Prime Minister of Norway, would not endorse the radical idea. “I will focus on what we have agreed and we have agreed that we committed to the pledge increasing defense spending to 2%,” he told reporters. “Let’s start with that; we have a way to go.”
Despite Trump’s pressure, the goal remains 2%, clearly an aspirational target, given the fiscal inability or domestic political reluctance in many NATO states. “The important thing now is that we need to invest more,” Stoltenberg said. “Very much because of that very clear message from President Trump on this meeting, I think that allies understand this need.”
Trump’s take on the two days confirmed what Bolton had said earlier. “I let them know that I was extremely unhappy with what was happening,” he told reporters, explaining that the other states had effectively increased their stake by the equivalent of $33 billion. “They have substantially upped their commitment and now we’re very happy, and have a very, very powerful, very strong NATO — much stronger than it was two days ago.” He went so far as to describe the alliance as having become “a fine-tuned machine” due to his negotiations.
Like it or not, Trump’s disruptive devolution into “the enemy within” must be reckoned with. It might make for good “reality” television and presumably plays well to his solid but minority domestic base, but it makes for execrable foreign relations and policy development. Canada and its other NATO partners should not be drawn into the kind of political swamp Trump professes to hate.
Hudson on the Hill
(The role of Hudson is being filled by contributing editor Ken Pole.)