Unpacked: What Trump gets right and wrong about defense burden sharing

U.S. servicemen rest after an opening ceremony of the NATO-led military exercises "Noble Partner 2018" at Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi, Georgia, August 1, 2018. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili - RC1425E4A550
Editor's note:

In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news. Subscribe to the Brookings Creative Lab YouTube channel to stay up to date on the latest from Unpacked.

THE ISSUE: President Trump’s meeting with NATO allies on July 11 and 12 of this year was more tense than usual, in large part because of President Trump’s vocal criticism of NATO allies for failing to meet agreed-upon targets for national defense spending. As international alliances are tested, it’s more important than ever to understand what the U.S. has to gain and lose from international partnerships, and the important role that allied burden sharing plays.

“In many ways, [the NATO] alliance is historically very important, even if the United States is doing a bit more than its share.”

The things you need to know:

  • The phrase ”defense burden sharing” often gets boiled down to “what percent of your nation’s gross domestic product do you devote to military spending?”
  • That is a pretty simplistic way to think about it. More broadly, it’s “are you contributing your fair share, and are your allies doing the same thing?”
  • The most important way in which sacrifice is shared is willingness to take casualties.
  • The most common way we talk about burden sharing is what percent of your overall GDP you spend on your nation’s armed forces.
  • The main thing President Trump gets right about allied burden sharing is that it’s really not adequate.
  • If we look at major American allies, often this debate gets brought home in regards to NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has 29 members, and it has an official goal that everyone should spend 2 percent of their GDP on their armed forces.
  • The United States right now spends about 3.5 percent. We are not only far and away the biggest in actual dollar equivalent terms, but even when you adjust for the larger size of our country, we are far and away the biggest within NATO in terms of GDP percentage.
  • Other countries, with the exception of a few (Poland, Britain, Estonia), most other NATO allies are in the range of 1 to 1.5 percent of GDP, which is officially considered inadequate, and which has been the basis of debate and complaint from the United States for many years, going back well before the Trump administration.
  • So Donald Trump is in a long tradition of American critics of European and Canadian efforts to do their fair share.
  • There are a few things President Trump gets wrong.
  • You have to step back and say “this alliance is pretty good for the United States” in the sense that, even if we’re doing more than our fair share, who wants to go back to a Europe like what existed before WWI and WWII, where all the different major countries are jostling for position, competing with themselves, potentially forming alliances against each other, and therefore potentially running a higher risk of war, into which the United States could ultimately get dragged?
  • That’s a far worse situation than a NATO alliance in which different countries do more or less than their fair share.
  • You should take a broader view in historical terms, and recognize that having this kind of powerful alliance, with most of the major economies on earth, is really stabilizing for international order.
  • We do get a fair amount of help. In Afghanistan, we had up to 35,000 NATO troops helping us at any given time at the peak level of effort roughly a decade ago. In many ways, this alliance is historically very important, even if the United States is doing a bit more than its share.
  • To jeopardize the alliance because of debates about burden sharing would probably be a huge mistake.
  • Generally speaking, President Trump is wrong to be critical of our South Korean ally, a remarkable ally.
  • South Korea spends more than 2.5 percent of its GDP on its military. Of course they should, because they’re facing a very serious threat just to their north.
  • For most of the other countries in NATO, the threats are a little more abstract, hypothetical, or far away. It’s only appropriate that South Korea would be one of our more generous and resolute alliance partners.
  • I think we need to recognize that South Korea is a strong partner, not just on the Korean Peninsula, but around the world.

The sources:

What Trump gets wrong on allied burden-sharing

Sharing the burden without sharing a strategy

Trump’s meaningless NATO spending debate