Before Donald Trump threw his ballcap into the 2016 presidential circus center ring, there are a whole lot of issues no one was talking about because we didn’t know they were issues. One of those was the outright labeling of our North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies as free loaders, and making a federal case out of many of the 20 some odd member nations not contributing to their own national defense.
Naturally, that opened a big can of worms with the allies and does, to an extent, put a crimp in the idea that the United States is the most powerful nation on earth (well, not really if we can make them pay up). Even the idea that NATO was set up for another time can be tempered with the reality that other threats have emerged since the Soviet Union collapsed. However, Mr, Trump does have a point about the amount of money we spend on NATO vs. what the allies do.
Last year, the U.S. accounted for more than 72 percent of NATO members’ total defense expenditures, spending about $649.9 billion. The other 27 NATO members combined to spend less than 28 percent, or about $251 billion, of the total.
So, yesterday, when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Capitol Hill for a closed door meeting with a handful of U.S. Senators, things got heated. According to Drudge, sources claim that Mr. Stoltenberg was questioned as to why 23 of the 28 nations do not spend more than 2% of their gross domestic product on their own national defense. For the last 70 years the United States has been footing the bill for getting Europe back on its feet. Our leadership is now indicating it is time for that assistance to wane, especially since we have financial challenges of our own.
“They’re being laggards. I can’t think of a better word for it,” Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy after exiting the meeting. “I have expressed this in Munich, I have expressed this in Davos, I have expressed this in every forum where Europeans are listening.”
“I did mention to him that there’s a populism that is taking place within our country right now, both sides of the aisle,” said Corker. “The American people know that we are a nation spending way beyond our means and when our European counterparts are not honoring their obligations as they should, at some point, there’s going to be a breaking point.”
While U.S. senators on both sides of the aisle are voicing the need for Europe to help foot the bill for their defense, they are also somewhat in denial about what the groundswell of honest to goodness grass roots concern for what we are spending that we don’t have is all about:
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said that reasonable people can disagree about the contributions of NATO members, but Trump’s open speculation that the alliance may be worth leaving is far outside the mainstream.
“I think it’s important to explain that Trump isn’t the tip of an iceberg,” Murphy told FP. “He is a tiny isolated chunk of ice out in the ocean on this.”
More like an active volcano forming over a hot spot under the surface, actually. Given the amount of money the United States is spending on countries that tolerate us more than appreciate our help, it is time to ask for them to pay their share. What is unique, though, is that NATO is a campaign issue for the first time in decades.
“NATO has never really gotten attention in presidential campaigns before this year’s with Trump,” said Robbie Gramer, a NATO expert at the Atlantic Council. “The fact that the only attention it has received is through this light underscores how frustrated the U.S. electorate is with its allies. And NATO really hasn’t found an effective way to combat this message.”
And without paying up when they are spending most of their cash on their welfare states, they won’t be able to, either.