NATO: US Strategic Dominance and Unequal Burden-Sharing Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Johannes Thimm
Portraitfoto Johannes Thimm (tmm)

The asymmetry in NATO contributions between the United States and Europa is no accident, Johannes Thimm writes. Europeans should not be too alarmed about President Trump’s threats to withdraw from the alliance – and instead follow their own priorities.

US President Donald Trump accuses Europe of exploiting the United States, because most NATO members, including Germany, spend less than 2 percent of their GDP on defense. He calls for a significant increase in defense budgets – most recently to 4 percent of GDP, and threatens that the US will otherwise abandon its alliance commitments. It is true that Europe benefits from American security guarantees, and the diagnosis of European “free-riding” is not completely unfounded either. However, this does not mean that the US is being taken advantage of. There are three important arguments here:

NATO provides practical support and legitimacy to US supremacy

First, even if NATO is viewed in purely transactional terms, leaving aside values like solidarity among allies, it is a good deal for Washington. Americans calling for more equal burden-sharing, including Trump himself, suggest that the US supports NATO mostly for altruistic reasons. In other words that America is doing Europe a favor. But this picture is incomplete. For the US military, NATO is a force multiplier, providing legitimacy to American power. European allies are engaged in numerous missions like Afghanistan, while the United States mostly calls the shots. US bases in Europe not only protect European allies, but serve as logistics hubs to project power into the Middle East. These are assets the US military would not want to give up.

US defense policy is made strictly on US terms.

Second, the US defense budget does not depend on Europe’s military spending. It is misleading to argue that Europe must spend more so that the United States can spend less. The Pentagon’s budget is determined by Washington’s assessment of the capabilities necessary to maintain US strategic dominance – on its own, not through any alliance. When Congress adopts the annual defense budget, European expenditures play a marginal role. In 2017, President Trump increased the US defense budget, despite the fact that European states also spent more (and Russia’s spending decreased by 20 percent). According to calculations by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, US spending on NATO and the defense of Europe amounts to $30 billion, or just over 5 percent of its defense budget. Comparing that figure to the roughly $240 billion of European spending for NATO, the imbalance no longer seems so great. Given these numbers, it is also hard to argue that Europe is principally to blame for a US defense budget of around $600 billion.

Looking specifically at the cost of the US nuclear arsenal, it becomes even clearer how detached the US budget is from burden-sharing in NATO. Washington defines the US nuclear strategy with little regard for Europe’s policy priorities. Over the next thirty years (calculated from 2017), Washington plans a massive qualitative nuclear build-up, spending $400 billion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal – in addition to the costs of maintaining existing systems. This move was partly a reaction to Russian aggression in Ukraine, but above all a concession by President Obama to the Republican Congress in exchange for its approval of the 2014 New START treaty, in which the United States and Russia pledged to limit numbers of strategic nuclear warheads. If Trump were really interested in reducing costs, he would make serious efforts on arms control. Instead, he refused Russia’s offer to extend the New START treaty beyond its 2021 expiration date and increased spending on nuclear weapons by almost 20 percent. So, yes, to some extent Europe is free-riding on US security guarantees. But the reasons include the US desire for unrivalled military and nuclear capabilities, and not simply European reluctance to spend money on defense.

US nuclear superiority is a key feature of NATO

This leads to the third point. The US nuclear umbrella is the core of NATO, which was deliberately designed that way. The principle of collective security under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty ultimately depends on nuclear deterrence, which is mainly American. The idea is that everybody, including the Russian government, is aware that an attack on a NATO member could trigger a nuclear war, and thus is deterred from trying it. American taxpayers bear considerable costs to maintain the US nuclear arsenal. But on the one hand no-one in the United States would be prepared to give up US nuclear superiority, and on the other the guarantee of protection discourages other countries from striving for nuclear status themselves (the same logic applies to the US alliances with Japan and South Korea). Because Trump has repeatedly questioned this model, Asian and European countries are now seeing calls to acquire their own nuclear weapons. It is doubtful whether US interests would be better served if a nuclear arms race broke out in Europe or Asia.

Most in US foreign policy circles are well aware of all this, and hardly anyone supports Trump’s questioning of alliance solidarity. Europe would be well advised to follow its own priorities in addressing its military weaknesses. One such priority could be to reduce dependency on the United States on other security issues not directly related to collective defense. The occasional outbursts from the White House should best be ignored. Focusing on the 2 percent target for defense spending will neither appease Trump nor make Europe safer.

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