Leonard August Schuette / Apr 2021
Jens Stoltenberg. Photo: Shutterstock
After Trump wreaked havoc in Brussels and led NATO to the brink of collapse, State Secretary Blinken’s visit to the alliance’s headquarters on 24 March visibly marked a beginning of a new era. In his speech, he reiterated that ‘revitalizing our alliances’ around the world was a priority of the Biden Administration. Amid the general rejoicing in Brussels and European capitals, one important sentence in his speech has not received much attention. Blinken announced that ‘we also recognize the need to adopt a more holistic view of burden-sharing.’
Burden-sharing, or the lack thereof, lay at the heart of Trump’s pathological disdain for the alliance. Pointing to the fact that only half of the allies are on track to meet NATO’s target of spending 2% of GDP on defence by 2024, Trump believed that other allies ripped off the US. For all his faults, Trump’s instincts on European defence spending were not completely off. But the problem with recurring US lamentations of unequal burden-sharing is less the substance but the benchmark against which these are measured.
Besides from turning into a public relations disaster for NATO, the 2% target suffers from three flaws. First, using relative GDP figures leads to absurd scenarios in which countries with contracting economies can meet their NATO commitments even if their absolute defence spending stagnates or falls – a particular issue when economies shrink due to the pandemic. Second, spending more on defence is not necessarily tantamount to spending more on NATO. US, and to a lesser extent British and French military spending also serves non-NATO related objectives. And third, the 2% target ignores actual operational contributions to NATO missions. Denmark, for example, does not meet the 2% target but is widely considered a valuable troop provider.
In other words, the main issue with the 2% target is that it focusses on the input – money – not the output – practical contributions to NATO objectives. While some European allies have made proposals to go beyond the 2%, the US and other allies which consistently meet the target have long opposed reopening debates about a new benchmark. But a window of opportunity has opened. Blinken’s comments suggest that the US is both willing to discard dogma and open to reforming the target. The impact of the pandemic on defence budget also reinforces the logic of focussing on outputs rather than inputs, and NATO is currently undergoing its own strategic reflection processes which offer the right format for debate.
A new metric could take two potential forms. First, it could be fairly narrow and be based on two pillars: allies’ direct capability provisions and troop contributions. Such a metric would still be simple enough to be easily measurable and sellable to domestic audiences. Second, a new metric could be more holistic and also include non-military contributions to Euro-Atlantic security, such as development spending or resilience-building measures. Which version prevails depends on wider debates about whether NATO’s future is as a narrow military alliance or expansive security organisation, with questions over NATO’s role on China or climate change looming large.
Whichever view prevails, the main challenge of replacing the 2% benchmark is political not technical. Europeans need to counter the regular perception in Washington and elsewhere that replacing the 2% is a self-serving ploy to evade pulling their weight. The European proposal to replace the 2% benchmark must therefore go hand in hand with a discernible upping of their commitment to ease the American burden in Europe and its southern neighbourhood. And some European allies like Germany will still have to spend more on defence to correct operational deficits.
With the Biden Administration and momentum in debates about NATO’s future, there is now a golden opportunity to reconstitute the transatlantic bargain and agree on a more equitable and meaningful defence spending metric. Allies should seize it.