NATO’s Two Percent and Burden Sharing

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The debate over burden sharing within NATO is about as old as the alliance itself. However, rarely has the debate spilled into public discourse as acrimoniously as it did at the most recent NATO summit in Brussels. President Trump, like his predecessors, is right to make a case for more defense spending in Europe, but the real issue is not the amount of money being spent but rather how the money is being spent. NATO should measure its members’ contributions regarding the capabilities and readiness they provide, not their aggregate cost.

Since its founding, U.S. presidents have pressed their European allies to increase defense spending in support of the shared NATO mission. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson each faced the challenge of burden sharing within the alliance.

More recently, both the Obama and Bush administrations have pressed allies to increase their investments to support NATO operations. Bush made his plea in 2006 at the Bucharest Summit, while Obama called allies to abide by the commitment they made in 2014, where they pledged to spend 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, and 20% of defense spending on equipment.

Unsurprisingly, President Trump’s confrontational negotiating style quickly took center stage at this month’s summit in Brussels, as he castigated allies for taking advantage of the United States by not paying enough for NATOs collective defense.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, however, noted how all allies have halted cuts to their defense budgets and have begun implementing plans to increase their defense budgets to two percent of their respective GDPs, with a majority planning to reach that goal by 2024. While Stoltenberg credited President Trump with delivering a “clear message” on burden sharing, this debate misses an important point. Simply spending more does not equate with actual burden sharing.

According to NATO’s Strategic Concept, collective defense, crisis management, and collective security are the alliance’s core tasks. These missions require capable, mobile, and interoperable forces. Real burden sharing would require every ally to contribute forces ready to deploy for such missions.  

Defense expenditure alone fails to measure real military capability, let alone its use on the alliance’s behalf. Take the cases of Denmark and Greece. In 2017, Greece spent 2.32 percent of its GDP on defense, while Denmark spent only 1.17 percent. Using the 2 percent goal as a benchmark, one would, therefore, conclude that Greece is a model NATO partner while Denmark is a free rider “taking advantage of the United States.” These numbers, however, do not accurately illustrate how these two nations actually share the burden.

From Mali to Libya and Afghanistan to Iraq, the Danish military is actively deployed in support of NATO’s out-of-area missions. Although it spends more than 2 percent of its GDP on defense, Greece contributed none of its 21,500 deployable troops to NATO missions (according to 2014 European Defense Agency data).

The Danish and Greek militaries are not outliers—additional data shows similar discrepancies among other nations as well. The point is, NATO’s needs are not met by spending 2 percent of GDP alone. Members’ contributions to NATO missions of capable, ready, and deployable forces are what actually matter.

This was made clear once again, when three Czech soldiers serving with NATO's Resolute Support mission were killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber. The Czech Republic had recently approved a plan to deploy 390 soldiers in Afghanistan through 2020, up from the current 230. While the Czech Republic has not yet met the two percent of GDP spending goal, it does participate in NATO missions fighting, dying and sharing the risk alongside their deployed counterparts.

While allies should meet their two percent of GDP commitment, they should also spend that money more wisely, focusing on concrete investments to eliminate capability shortfalls. For example, meeting the related pledge to spend 20 percent of defense budgets on equipment (as opposed to salaries or operations) will facilitate the development of cutting-edge weapon systems that are capable, deployable and interoperable.

Another area for improvement is logistics. A classified report issued within NATO following a June 2017 exercise describes how NATO's ability to logistically support rapid reinforcement in its area of operation has atrophied since the end of the Cold War. Shortages of equipment to move tanks, and of train cars to transport heavy equipment, are but two practical examples of requirements left unfilled. 

Logistics is but one example of a niche requirement allies can focus on as they seek ways to spend defense budgets more wisely. Other specialized requirements that are priorities for investment and development include: Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance; Airborne Warning and Control Systems; Ballistic Missile Defense; Air command and control; and Cyber defense are all specialized requirements needed by the Alliance.

Spending more for the sake of meeting an arbitrary spending limit is not the answer. Smarter, targeted spending should focus on filling NATOs requirement gaps. Allies can best share the burden by investing wisely and reprioritizing spending priorities, which will result in a more capable NATO and improve cooperation within the Alliance.  


John Cappello, a former B-1B pilot, served as the Air Force Attaché to the U.S. Embassies in Belgrade and Tel Aviv, and is currently a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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