While at the NATO summit this week in Brussels, President Donald Trump has drawn attention to US defense spending, fulfilling a key campaign promise to hold NATO member states accountable for their end of the budget. President Trump has time and time again insisted that the US foots NATO’s bill, while it’s NATO partners consistently fail to meet their financial commitments. Some reports claim that President Trump has even threatened to pull the US out of NATO if US allies fail to increase their defence spending.
Can the US Pull Out of NATO?
On Wednesday Trump insisted that NATO members should not only begin meeting their agreement to spend 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, they should actually double this amount and start spending 4% on defense.
Reports surfaced Thursday that President Trump even threatened to pull the US out of NATO if it’s partners do not begin meeting their 2% commitment to defence spending. Sources claim President Trump said the US could “go our own way,” but this statement has been interpreted differently by various officials. Some, like French President Emmanuel Macron, claim President Trump never blatantly threatened to leave NATO, while others insist the US President’s threats were clear.
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President Macron told reporters, “President Trump never at any moment, either in public or in private, threatened to withdraw from NATO.”
Later on Thursday, President Trump told reporters at a press conference that he believes he has the right to withdraw from NATO without congressional approval, but US senators don’t necessarily agree.
Two US senators flew into Brussels overnight from DC to pass on the message that NATO has firm congressional support in the US.
Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, told the NATO Engages conference, “There is no crisis in the United States about NATO.” He went on to say, “Headlines and tweets are not a concern of the American public and they’re not a concern of the American Congress.” Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee also made her way to Brussels.
Defence Spending Demands
Trump also said during his press conference, “I told people that I would be very unhappy if they don’t up their commitments very substantially because the United States has been paying a tremendous amount.”
When asked what he will do if NATO members fail to meet his demands President Trump said ominously, “They will.” He also claimed to have secured agreements from key US NATO partners to contribute more to defence spending.
This claim was later refuted by other NATO leaders, including President Macron, who said, “There is a communique that was published yesterday. It’s very detailed … It confirms the goal of 2 percent by 2024. That’s all.”
One NATO official claims President Trump insisted on a plan from NATO members by January on how they will increase defence spending. Another source says Trump called out the 10 nations who have yet to submit spending plans.
President Trump indicated that his wants to see NATO partners paying their fair share of the NATO defence bill, which he believes would be double what NATO countries have already committed to. He claims this would be a more fair situation since the US spends 4.2% of its GDP on defense, while it’s NATO partners pay much less. While at breakfast with NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, President Trump said, “On top of that, Germany is just paying a little bit over 1%, whereas the United States, in actual numbers, is paying 4.2% of a much larger GDP.”
He also pointed out that the US is footing the bill for defense spending in Europe, “So I think that’s inappropriate also. You know, we’re protecting Germany, we’re protecting France. We’re protecting everybody. And yet we’re paying a lot of money to protect.”
Is President Trump Right About US Defence Spending?
President Trump often brought up NATO partners and US defense spending on the campaign trail, even calling NATO “obsolete,” but is he correct that the US defence spending is far greater than it’s NATO partners?
President Trump is definitely correct that the US has the largest GDP in NATO. In fact, at $19.39 trillion according to the World Bank, the US actually has the largest GDP in the world. But according to NATO, the US does not spend 4.2% of its GDP on defense. NATO estimates place that number at 3.5% of GDP. Even if the NATO estimate is correct and President Trump is wrong, that still means the US spends more on defense than all the other NATO countries combined. At $623 billion, US defense spending is actually almost double that of the all its NATO partners combined, who contributed only $312 billion.
The World Bank’s estimate is slightly lower, finding US defence spending to be at 3.145% of GDP in 2017, but that is still significantly more than key allies like Germany and France.
How Much is US Defence Spending?
Trump actually requested more than the $623 estimated by NATO for fiscal year 2018. He requested $639 billion towards US defence spending for 2018. This includes money spent on overseas missions, facilities maintenance, and weapons. It also includes a 2.1% pay raise for the troops.
While the US technically spends a smaller proportion of its GDP on defence than in the 1960s during the Cold War, in real dollars, the US now spends much more on defence since GDP is now so much larger.
Per capita, the US spent $1,879 on defence in 2017. America’s NATO allies, France ($889 per capita), the UK ($713 per capita), and Germany ($539 per capita), spent less than half that amount. Not only does the US pay more per capita than its NATO partners, it is also increasing this rate more quickly as well. In 1988, the US was spending less than $1,200 per capita. That means the US has increased spending $600 per capita over three decades, while Germany, France, and the UK have only increased their defence spending by less than $300 per capita in the past 30 years.
Up next on the Trump agenda, an upcoming state visit to Britain and the much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday.