What Donald Trump does, and doesn’t, get right about Nato spending

It’s become fashionable to say Trump has a point about Nato spending. But the contention doesn’t quite stand up.

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Does Donald Trump have a point after all? That’s become a commonplace phrase among defence and security experts, who – despite deploring the rest of Trump’s agenda, fear he will destroy American democracy as we know it, and believe that he is a threat to multilateral organisations – think that he is right to say that many of the nations of Nato are letting the United States foot the bill for their defence commitments.

One civil servant recently described Trump as “incidentally correct”: his motivations and worldview are, on this narrow subject, leading him to the correct conclusion, which is that most of the nations of Nato are taking liberties with defence spending.

It’s true that very few nations in Nato hit the target of spending two per cent of their GDP on defence. Germany, the richest nation in Europe, spends 1.4 per cent. The United Kingdom barely hits the two per cent target and does so through partially through some heroic assumptions about what is and isn’t defence spending. France, the third member of Nato to have its own nuclear deterrent (aside from the US and UK) also does not meet the two per cent target. The United States meanwhile spends 3.6 per cent on defence and it will rise to in excess of four per cent in the next fiscal year.

But the problem with the “Nato states are letting the United States foot the bill for their own defence” meme is that it isn’t quite true. For the first part, the bulk of the United States’ defence spending is not on anything that could plausibly be described as the defence of Nato members, but for the defence of American interests in other theatres, not least the Arab world. The argument that Germany is “protected” by US defence spending in Qatar is hard to sustain.

The second problem is that Nato members that are not hitting the defence target aren’t the same nations as those who would be left vulnerable by an American withdrawal from Nato. France and the United Kingdom are ultimately protected from invasion by their own nuclear deterrents. Germany doesn’t have a land border with Russia. The nations who do benefit from the support of other Nato members aren’t minimising their commitments. Poland and Estonia both hit the two per cent target, while Latvia is close to it. And, most importantly of all, the target of two per cent was set in 2014 to be met in 2024, and all of Nato’s major economies have increased defence spending and are on course to hit the target by 2024.

It is true that Germany’s continued dependence on Russian gas – made worse by Angela Merkel’s panicked renunciation of nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster – has long-run implications for Nato policy towards Russia. But again, you can’t fairly sustain the argument that this means that Trump is “incidentally correct” or “has a point” in his threats, which ultimately hit not France, Germany or the United Kingdom, but the Baltic states.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.