BRUSSELS — President Donald Trump arrived Tuesday at the home of NATO headquarters with a seemingly singular preoccupation: allies who aren't sharing in the burden of providing for the collective defense.
His rallying cry: "2 percent." That's the amount NATO members are expected to spend on defense as a share of their economies. Only four of 29 allies meet that target.
The latest salvo came in two tweets from Air Force One, in which he misrepresented the arrangement by which allies contribute to their joint defense.
The squabbling over who pays for the protection afforded by the alliance has already set a combative tone for the two-day NATO summit in Brussels this week, as the allies discuss its response to Russia's growing military, political and cyber incursions into Europe.
"Many countries in NATO, which we are expected to defend, are not only short of their current commitment of 2% (which is low), but are also delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the U.S.?" Trump tweeted.
A 2014 agreement did require members to increase defense spending, with a goal of contributing 2 percent of the nation's economic output by 2024. But more importantly, that spending is on their own defense forces — not payments to the United States.
But Trump is correct that only four NATO members — the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Greece — currently meet the 2 percent expectation. A fifth country, Poland, fell to 1.99 percent his year, as faster-than-expected economic growth outpaced defense budgets.
Diplomats say Trump's singular focus on the 2 percent benchmark might be counterproductive.
"The more he harangues allies, and the more he makes this the defining issue, the more difficult it will be for some allies actually to increase spending," said Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013. "Given that Trump’s popularity in Europe is at an historic low for a US president, acceding to his demands is becoming more difficult for many European leaders."
European Council President Donald Tusk suggested as much Tuesday.
“Dear America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don’t have that many," he said in Brussels ahead of Trump's visit.
"We do have a lot of allies, but we cannot be taken advantage of," Trump responded. "We're being taken advantage of by the European Union."
Trump has tied the issue of defense spending to his larger trade wars, saying the United States should not be subsidizing nations with which it runs a trade deficit.
"The European Union makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe (U.S. has a $151 Billion trade deficit), and then they want us to happily defend them through NATO, and nicely pay for it," Trump tweeted. "Just doesn’t work!"
One particular target of Trump's displeasure has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Germany pays 1 percent. One percent," Trump said at a campaign rally last week. "And I said, you know, Angela, I can't guarantee it, but we're protecting you, and it means a lot more to you than protecting us because I don't know how much protection we get by protecting you."
Germany's actual spending is 1.24 percent of its gross domestic product.
But experts say Trump's focus on the percentage of defense spending only captures one dimension of an ally's contribution. Germany's government, for example, approved an increase in troops to serve in Afghanistan, to 1,300. And other countries include military pensions in its totals, which is effectively spending on past defense.
Trump's excessive fixation on defense spending ignores those contributions, argues Jeffrey Rathke, the co-author of a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on NATO burden sharing. He also said the NATO figures don't take into account civilian spending that helps boost defense, like diplomatic efforts and training of local defense forces.
Trump's frequent complaints about defense spending also obscure the fact that European defense spending is going up — even by Trump's own measure.
Nineteen of the 29 members spend more on defense than they did in 2014, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said half are on pace to meet the target by 2024.
There are a lot of reasons for that: New threats from Russia following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, an improving European economy, and U.S. pressure under both President Barack Obama and, more pointedly, Trump.
"Trump can claim some credit for the increase," said Daalder, Obama's NATO ambassador. "The allies are certainly willing to give it to him if he were to recommit fully to NATO and collective defense."
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