President Trump has been making plenty of claims about how much the U.S. contributes to NATO while portraying other members of the alliance as deadbeats. Here is some of what he’s said and how those statements stand up to the facts.
Sitting down to breakfast in Brussels just before the NATO plenary session Wednesday, Trump accused NATO allies of being freeloaders:
“Many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money from many years back, where they’re delinquent as far as I’m concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them. So if you go back 10 or 20 years, you’ll just add it all up, it’s massive amounts of money is owed.”
The U.S. has not been stiffed for unpaid bills by NATO allies.
“There is no ledger that maintains accounts of what countries pay and owe,” says former Obama administration National Security Council staffer Aaron O’Connell. “NATO is not like a club with annual membership fees.”
NATO members did make a commitment four years ago to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense by 2024. Just nine of the military alliance’s 29 members are expected to reach or surpass that target this year.
At the same pre-plenary breakfast, Trump excoriated Germany, the biggest economic power in NATO after the U.S.:
“Germany is just paying a little bit over 1 percent, whereas the United States in actual numbers is paying 4.2 percent.”
True and False
Germany indeed devotes only about 1.25 percent of its GDP to defense. While it has boosted defense spending the past two years, Germany, like about half the other NATO members, does not plan to reach 2 percent by 2024.
But Trump’s claim that the U.S. is spending 4.2 percent of GDP is at odds with the Pentagon, which puts it at 3.3 percent.
NATO scholar Garret Martin says in any case, U.S. defense needs vastly surpass those of its European allies.
“We’re not comparing apples to apples,” notes Garret, a lecturer at American University’s School of International Service. “The United States is a global military power with global military commitments.
“NATO and the transatlantic geographical area is only a part of what the United States military does. That’s not necessarily true for most of the European members of the alliance.”
At a July 5 rally in Montana, Trump said this about NATO funding:
“We’re paying for anywhere from 70 to 90 percent to protect Europe, and that’s fine.”
Trump did not say 70 to 90 percent of what. It’s true that if the overall defense budgets of all 29 NATO allies are tallied, the U.S. defense budget accounts for about two-thirds of that total. But as noted above, American defense expenditures are for much more than just protecting Europe.
“There is a common budget that all NATO allies pay into,” says former NSC staffer O’Connell of NATO’s direct expenses for shared headquarters and exercises. “It’s about $2.8 billion and the U.S. pays 22 percent of that, not 90 percent.”
Trump sought to take credit in Brussels for NATO allies spending more:
“This year, since our last meeting, commitments have been made for over $40 billion more money spent by other countries.”
NATO reported on July 10 that spending by European members increased from last fiscal year to the current fiscal year by about $35 billion.
The increased spending predates Trump.
“I think once the trend started changing in 2014, that created momentum even before he became president,” says American University’s Martin. “Now maybe there’s a bit more urgency now because he’s blunter than his predecessors in criticizing his European partners.”
Despite Trump’s complaints about American outlays for NATO, the U.S. is actually spending more in Europe than when he took office.
“Actions speak louder than words,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters as the NATO summit got underway. “Since Trump became president, U.S. funding for military presence in Europe — the European Deterrence Initiative —has been increased by 40 percent.”
That spending was approved by Congress, where both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly approved resolutions this week backing NATO.