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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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    The only thing worse than an embedded tweet is a giant blown-up picture of an embedded tweet. – Robert Harvey Dec 3 at 18:11
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    The question would be hugely improved by getting rid of the image and just talking about the text/content. You can always link to the original, but this site is about questions and answers, and both can stand very well on their own just using words and quotes. Maybe even better: summarize some of the research you have done already what the statement is supposed to mean and why you haven't been able to check it. – user2705196 Dec 3 at 18:18
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    Possibly better on Skeptics.SE than Politics.SE. It's about a claim, not about any policy. – CJ Dennis Dec 4 at 0:19
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    I fail to see why this is a "primarily opinion-based" question, as the accepted answer clearly shows that it is answerable using figures. Also, while this would definitely fit in Skeptiks.SE it is so related to politics, that it can also belong here (SE sites scopes can and do overlap). – Alexei Dec 5 at 7:44
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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. – Giacomo Alzetta Dec 5 at 10:42
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Mostly 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
[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, 3 out of 27 non-US NATO countries, the claim is correct.


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 tweeter 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? – Peter Taylor Dec 3 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 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 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 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% – Lord Jebus VII Dec 4 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 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 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 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 1 hour ago
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I wanted to just add a comment, however I do not have the reputation needed, so I am just gonna write an answer. Have in mind I am not going to provide solid facts, however my claims can still will be confirmed one way or another, and I am expressing the notion that not only I, as an European have, but many of my friends and people living around me share. I have also lived in different EU countries over the past 10 years:

Yes,

it is true that NATO has increased military spending during Trump. It was actually on a decline during Obama, and countries were still refusing to increase it when confronted directly, which the US took as an offense.

Is Europe threatened?

Absolutely NO. Europe is not threatened by Russia. Russia does not have the reason, nor funds, nor will power, nor manpower to invade any country in Europe. It will be detrimental for Russia to attack. Russia is still recovering from the fall of the Soviet Union a few decades later. It makes no sense in halting this slow, but sure economic recovery by dragging itself into a war and cutting it short. Also: have in mind that despite being the biggest country, Russia only has about 120 million people, so manpower for an offensive war will be an issue.

Why does the US insist on increaded European military spending?

Well, that's simple. Increased spending means buying more machinery. And considering the US is the world's top producer of all sorts of military hardware AND software, this increase in European military spending will directly increase the money flow into the US.

Where does the threat come from?

As I said politicians and their agendas and opinions are very different than the normal person and their opinions and feelings. What we constantly see is politics and "the few at the top" trying to unsuccessfully influencing their nations. The problem here is that I, living in my home country can see the "propaganda" they are trying to bathe us with, however when my politician's words go abroad, people in other countries are unable to fact-check so easily and take the truthfulness behind those words for granted. I believe at this point everyone has understood that any sort of war is not going to benefit ANYONE.

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    "Russia does not have the reason, nor funds, nor will power, nor manpower to invade any country in Europe." Ukraine is in Europe, and Russia did invade it. – Roel Schroeven Dec 4 at 10:08
  • I would love you to show me undisputed facts from non-biased sources that can solidify this claim. As a citizen of the EU I do not get any "evidence" from Russian, nor US sources. Each of these countries are obviously going to propagate that suit their own interrests and try to spread false information for the other. The EU on the other hand, has been keeping itself as a relatively objective and non-biased source of truthfulness, despite being aligned with the US. – Snop Doog 5 hours ago
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    Here's a source from the EU: EU statement on "Human rights violations by Russia in illegally occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol" (eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/…) (Let's hope the URL is permanent): "The European Union does not recognize and condemns the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by the Russian Federation. The act contravenes Russia’s commitments under the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act and the Paris Charter." and so on. – Roel Schroeven 4 hours ago
  • Hold up! I wasn't talking about Crime and I already stated that it is a tricky situation. I did acknowledge the fact that it is considered Russian soil now. I thought this was a continuation of the "invasion claims" related to the actual war in Ukraine, and the war in Georgia, as another user tried to push in here. – Snop Doog 4 hours ago
  • I have only ever said anything about Ukraine (and by extension Crimea, which is in Ukraine) because that's more than example enough and because I haven't followed other conflicts as closely. I'm not going to comment further since our viewpoints are expressed clear enough already, and we're not going to be persuaded by one another to change them anyway. And this is not the place for discussions of this kind. – Roel Schroeven 2 hours ago

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