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Over President Trump’s term in office, he has been very vocal about the spending commitments made by many NATO countries, and their frequent failure to live up to them. He now seems to be taking credit for reversing this trend. In particular, I’m talking about the claims made in the tweet below.

How true are Trump’s claims that the US is unfairly paying for Europe’s defense, and are his claims that his presidency has been responsible for persuading other member states to meet their spending commitments valid?

Trump tweet

Text of tweet: In the 3 decades before my election, NATO spending declined by two-thirds, and only 3 other NATO members were meeting their financial obligations. Since I took office, the number of NATO allies fulfilling their obligations more than DOUBLED, and NATO spending increased by $130B!

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  • "... his claims that his presidency has been responsible for persuading other member states to meet their spending commitments valid?" There is really no such claim made explicitly in the quoted tweet. He's merely noting a correlation, probably wishing that readers should draw the conclusion that causation is implied.
    – jkej
    Dec 4, 2019 at 11:56
  • There was somewhat of a world-wide recession before Trump, so military spending was cut. It increasing again has nothing to do with Trump, but with the end of the recession and thus more money being available.
    – Mast
    Dec 5, 2019 at 7:02
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    @jkej The tweet is quite explicit IMHO. Human language is not a programming language. If you ask me "Can I borrow the bike" and I answer "Go f*ck yourself" it's quite clear that means "no you cannot" even though it doesn't explicitly say that. Trump fails to note an other correlation like the ending of the soviet union about 3 decades ago and the recent resurgence of Russia imperialism with crimea etc which is probably a much more significant correlation. Dec 5, 2019 at 10:42
  • @GiacomoAlzetta I think we generally agree about the implicit meaning. But even though it's obvious, it's not explicit. That's why the highest voted answer can still be "Mostly true", since it only breaks down the tweet in its explicit factual claims, and ignores the overall implicit claim.
    – jkej
    Dec 5, 2019 at 11:17
  • I'd argue this would have been better suited for skeptics then politics community. Though it fits well enough here that I'm not demanding it be moved.
    – dsollen
    Jan 26 at 17:17

2 Answers 2

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+100

Imprecise but partly true


First claim: exaggerated
In the three decades before Trump's election, NATO spending declined by two-thirds.

On page 4 of this 1987 report(pdf) on NATO military spending, we learn that in 1987 they were globally spending 5.0% of their GDP on defense. More precisely:

  • USA: 6.6%
  • Canada: 2.1%
  • (Western) Europe: 3.4%

In 2016, i.e. year 1 before Trump, this level was down to 2.49% of GDP.

The military spending has thus decreased by a half, and not by two-thirds, in share of GDP.

In nominal terms, of course, it had not decreased at all, since GDP more than doubled from 1987 to 2016.

Please note that these comparisons are not on a consistent number of countries, since NATO expanded to new countries after the end of the Cold War. I suspect than Warsaw Pact countries, e.g. Poland, were spending a huge share of their GDP on defense, but it would be complicated, and certainly meaningless, to refine the figures to include them.


Second claim: true-ish
[Before Trump came to office] only 3 other NATO countries were meeting their financial obligations.

From WorldPopulationReview:

At the 2014 summit in Wales, all of the NATO members agreed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on the defense by the year 2025.

NATO published the report Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2013-2019)(pdf)

According to table 3, Back in 2016, only 3 NATO countries beside the USA were fulfilling this 2% commitment: Greece, UK, Estonia were at least at 2.07%, and Poland stood just under the threshold with 1.99%.

So, the claim is correct in the regard that 3 out of 27 non-US NATO countries were already fulfilling in 2016 their commitment for 2025 ; however other countries may argue that they had no such obligation for 2016 spendings.


Third claim: true
The number of NATO allies fulfilling their obligations more than doubled (all-caps changed to lowercase).

In 2019, spending is just an estimation, but beside the US, 8 countries pass the 2.0% threshold:

  • Country / Total Spending as Share of GDP
  • Poland 2.00%
  • Latvia 2.01%
  • Lithuania 2.03%
  • Romania 2.04%
  • United Kingdom 2.13%
  • Estonia 2.14%
  • Greece 2.28%
  • Bulgaria 3.25%

Bulgaria announced a spectacular increase in military spending, it was standing at 1.48% in 2018. This is due to a huge one-time command in 2019 (cf notes below), so it is hard to imagine how much they will spend on defense in 2020.

If we include Bulgaria and the USA, the number of countries above 2.0% of military spending passed from 4 to 9, so this is indeed more than doubling.

However, this is maybe not as significant as the capital letters might make the readers of Trump's Twitter account think: for instance, Poland's military spending has increased from 1.99% to 2.00% of GDP. The figures are more impressive for Romania's (from 1.40% to 2.04%) Latvia's (from 1.45% to 2.01%), and of course Bulgaria.


Fourth claim: rather false
NATO spending increased by $130B

Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2013-2019)(pdf) estimates that NATO total Defence expenditure (table 2), in constant dollar, raises from $913B in 2016 to $987B in 2019. This is a $74B increase, slightly more than half of what Trump claims.

Using current prices and exchange rates, however, the increase is +$128B, from $911B in 2016 to $1039B in 2019. This might be the figure Trump refers to, but it is misleading. The extra $54B are due to inflation and to the exchange rate of US dollar($) versus other NATO countries currencies, mainly Euro(€).

In any case, about half of the raise is due to the US own growing military budget. Canada and Europe NATO countries have raised their military spending by $40B in this 3 years period. (Which I would describe as significant, but also significantly lower than the figure given by Trump's tweet).

If we were Since we are on Politics.SE and not Skeptics.SE, we might discuss how much of this raise is due to Trump's diplomatic effort, and how much was already planned (the 2% commitment was taken in 2014, countries needed time to converge there), or a reaction by East-European countries to the perceived threat of Russia after the Ukraine crisis, or a consequence of NATO members putting less trust in their American ally for their own protection.


Notes

  • Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, mechanically raising the total military budget of the alliance. This amount of circa $70M, however, doesn't affect the general picture.

  • Bulgaria announced a doubling of its military expenditure in 2019, which would make it pass the 2% threshold. @T.E.D gave the explanation in a comment: Bulgaria's blip up this year is due to a one-time purchase of 8 expensive F-16's (at about 15mil a pop).

  • Writing this answer feels weird, because this is the first time I fact-checked a Trump tweet that happens to deserve the 'rather true' mention.

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    I don't understand the argument for the second point. If "all of the NATO members agreed to spend 2 percent of their GDPs on the defense by the year 2025" (my emphasis) then did they even have "financial obligations" for 2016? Dec 3, 2019 at 14:41
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    The third claim isn't really something to brag about either. Most of the new countries on the list are neighbors of an increasingly aggressive and unrestrained Russia. Bulgaria's blip up this year is due to a one-time purchase of 8 expensive F-16's (at about 15mil a pop).
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 3, 2019 at 19:12
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    Re your "Second claim :True" Since we don't know what the 2016 requirement was, how can someone say that only 3 non-US NATO allies were meeting the fulfilling the commitment. What was the commitment for the year 2016?
    – BobE
    Dec 3, 2019 at 20:35
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    Russia's influence: from 2014 (Russia invaded Ukraine) to 2016 (Before Trump) 61% of NATO countries increased spending (18 of 29). I can't find 2018 numbers that aren't estimates. It would be nice to show the 2016 to 2018 change but it would be hard to tease out how much was affected by Trump versus continued Russian aggression.
    – CramerTV
    Dec 3, 2019 at 20:50
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    Doesn't the US include military health care spending in their budget? For other NATO countries this is part of public health care and if included could potentially increase their contributions above 2% Dec 4, 2019 at 15:55
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The previous answer gave plenty of numbers, so let me focus on

How true are Trump’s claims that the US is unfairly paying for Europe’s defense [...] ?

Once upon a time, the US and their Western European allies were menaced by the Soviet Union and their Eastern European allies. The Group of Soviet Forces in Germany stood ready to roll through the Fulda Gap and might have reached the Rhine in seven days. They were deterred by the combined forces of the US and the other NATO members and especially the US nuclear umbrella.

  • First Interpretation: The US decided to take a stand for freedom and democracy, and to put Washington and New York on the line in a global nuclear standoff to safeguard Bonn and Paris. There were GIs deployed in front of the Panzergrenadiers to make clear that any Soviet move could trigger a global war.
  • Second Interpretation: The US briefly considered a more isolationist posture in the drawdown after WWII, but then they realized that they could either fight with the Europeans against the Soviets or fight alone after Europe had been defeated. The Europeans "kindly" volunteered their homelands as a battlefied in this global conflict.
    (Q: What is the difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons? A: Tactical nuclear weapons are those which are used in Germany.)

After the end of the Cold War, NATO greatly reduced their forces and budgets, especially the European members. The US reduced their forward deployment of combat forces to Germany and transformed most of the remainder into a logistics hub. Ramstein has become a drone operations center for the global War on Terror, Landstuhl receives casualties from those interventions.

  • First Interpretation: Having defeated the Soviet threat, the US continued to safeguard Western Europe.
  • Second Interpretation: The US decided to use the existing bases and infrastructure for their own purposes, no longer consulting their allies on which wars they would be used for.

Then the Russian threat became much more credible again. Especially the Baltic EU/NATO members and Poland felt threatened. NATO conventional forces were drawn down to a point where they are no credible deterrent. The Enhanced Forward Presence comes to perhaps one armored brigade, and that is counting the US and Canadian contributions.

  • First Interpretation: The US is safeguarding the ungrateful Europeans, again.
  • Second Interpretation: The Russians are not the Soviets. They might have gone after neutrals like the Ukraine, but their economy is still too dependent on energy sales to Europe to attack an EU member. The paranoia of the Eastern NATO members is historically understandable but misplaced.

The last bullet point is clearly the weakest of the six. The military budgets of France, Germany, and the UK are each individually in the same range as the Russian budget, so why are they not getting the expected results? Higher salaries are part of the explanation, but they are not enough. Duplication of effort is another. To get a credible defense, the EU-and-NATO countries would have to coordinate much better.

Regarding fairness, would the US really want an EU that spends 2% of GDP on defense and gets value for money?

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    A recent Atlantic article quotes a Russian joke: On the Estonian border, another anekdot goes, a border guard is filling out Putin’s entry form. “Occupation?” the officer asks. “Not today,” Putin replies. “Just tourism.” If the Russians believe they're going to invade, I can't call the Eastern NATO members paranoid. theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/…
    – prosfilaes
    Dec 4, 2019 at 0:58
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    You're focusing on Russia - and if that was the only purpose, or use of NATO forces, you would be correct. But NATO's mission has expanded. See: the Balkan wars; the fiasco in Libya; Syria....
    – Mayo
    Dec 4, 2019 at 14:42
  • @Mayo, those are commonly called "out of area" missions. A catch-all which shows that the primary mission is the never-used one (except 9/11, which did not really fit).
    – o.m.
    Dec 4, 2019 at 15:37
  • The US never considered an isolationist posture... read about the Marshall Plan. Cost us a fortune, but it got Europe back on its feet.
    – tj1000
    Dec 9, 2019 at 17:31
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    @tj1000, things were a bit less clear in the immediate post-war years. The US first redeployed to the Pacific and then demobilized, while war plans around 1948/49 would have surrendered most of mainland Europe except for bomber bases in the UK and Italy. Your statement is a fine example of my first bullet point, which is a plausible interpretation but not the only one.
    – o.m.
    Dec 9, 2019 at 22:01

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