The state of NATO is better than you think

Foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will gather in Washington on April 3 and 4 to celebrate the organization’s 70th anniversary. We should celebrate that NATO has been the most successful alliance of all time, preventing a major great-power war such as World War I and World War II, during which 15 to 20 million and 62 to 78 million people died, respectively.

In the context of NATO’s success, we should review the criticisms of the organization — particularly burden-sharing.

It has been said that the United States is not “merely an Atlas to carry the load on its shoulder” in the context of NATO burden-sharing and that the United States “cannot continue to pay for the military protection of Europe while the NATO states are not paying their fair share and living off the ‘fat of the land.’” It has also been stated that “America believes if Europeans invest in their own defense, they will also be stronger and more capable when we deploy together” and that “everybody’s got to chip in” to NATO. These quotes were spoken by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, President John F. Kennedy, President George W. Bush, and President Barack Obama, respectively.

Clearly, the criticisms of burden-sharing are not new and must be taken in a historical context. As U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison recently stated, “in my 20 years in the Senate, every President with whom I worked also asked our allies to step up, and our allies have been very forthcoming.”

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpIllinois governor says state has gotten 10 percent of medical equipments it's requested Biden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll Tesla offers ventilators free of cost to hospitals, Musk says MORE has made some vocal criticisms of NATO during the campaign and as president. He even discussed the terrifying possibility of a U.S. withdrawal from the alliance. But he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO’s mutual defense article, and his administration is clearly in favor of remaining in the organization. This is reflected in the administration’s National Security Strategy, which states that the “NATO alliance will become stronger when all members assume greater responsibility for and pay their fair share to protect our mutual interests, sovereignty, and values” and reiterates the United States’ expectation that European allies spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024.

The 2 percent target is imperfect and has received some legitimate criticisms, but it is a simple metric to measure burden-sharing. President Carter first introduced the idea of a non-binding burden-sharing measurement in 1977, when he suggested that member states increase defense-related expenditure by 3 percent annually. The 2 percent threshold idea arose as a “gentlemen’s agreement” during the 2002 Prague Summit. Member states reiterated their commitment to try to meet the 2 percent target in the 2006 Riga Summit, and they officially endorsed the target at the 2014 Wales Summit.

Within the alliance, burden-sharing concerns have not gone unheard, and member states are doing more. While only a minority of countries currently meet the 2 percent target, seven countries (United States, Greece, United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania) met the goal in 2018 — a considerable increase from just three countries four years earlier.

Defense expenditure reached a six-year high of $919 billion in 2018 — boosted by a considerable increase in defense spending by European countries and Canada to a total of $313 billion. Moreover, while some countries do not reach the 2 percent goal, they spend their defense budgets wisely. For example, France spent an estimated $51 billion — around 1.82 percent of GDP — on defense in 2018. And yet, France has the third-highest number of military personnel within NATO and the third-highest number of forces deployed abroad in the world, both after the United States and Turkey. This exemplifies that NATO allies are actively increasing their defense spending, investing it wisely, and working to maintain a credible conventional deterrent, even if they do not reach the 2 percent target.

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The United States remains strongly committed to NATO. President Trump recently said that “we’re going to be with NATO 100 percent.” Even if there were a change in administration in 2020, the United States will continue to support NATO, as the 2016 Democratic Party Platform reaffirmed the Party’s commitment to NATO and also called for other member states to contribute their fair share. Among top Democrats, Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll The Memo: Political world grapples with long coronavirus shutdown The Hill's Campaign Report: North Carolina emerges as key battleground for Senate control MORE strongly supports NATO and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Biden's pick for vice president doesn't matter much Biden faces pesky enthusiasm challenge despite big primary numbers MORE has also expressed support.

One must ask: has NATO been successful? The answer can be measured by what has not happened. There has been no great power war since World War II. No NATO member states have developed nuclear weapons (other than the United States, the United Kingdom, and France). NATO is also active on the ground, leading operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the Mediterranean and supporting the African Union and a training mission in Iraq.

Moreover, a large number of countries still seek NATO membership, with the last country to join being Montenegro in 2017. Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia currently participate in the Membership Action Plan, an assistance program for countries who wish to join. Georgia and Ukraine also aspire to join. These actions signal that NATO is still strong and relevant.

Trump’s tough and persistent stance on increased burden-sharing is consistent with past administrations. This administration’s criticisms have been heard by NATO members, who are actively seeking to increase their defense spending even if they do not reach the 2 percent benchmark. Major wars have been avoided thanks to NATO, and the United States remains committed to the alliance. NATO is strong and growing.

Daniel Runde is a Senior Vice President and William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.