The dishonest spending rhetoric that masks Trump’s Russia sympathies

One of the first times Donald Trump spoke publicly about NATO was during an appearance on Larry King's CNN show in 2007. 1987. The subject was broached by a caller who argued that NATO and West Germany – this was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, mind you – should pay for their own defense.

Trump agreed, arguing (as he has so often since) that countries like Japan that have a U.S. military presence should pay for the privilege.

“Many other countries” benefit “hugely,” including NATO, Trump said. “If you look at the payments we make to NATO, they are totally disproportionate to those of other countries. And it's ridiculous.

In the four decades since, Trump's rhetoric hasn't really changed much. What has changed are geopolitical realities and Trump's own ambitions. Now, as he did this weekend, Trump is using the idea that NATO allies “owe” the organization money – which none do – to cover up his obvious empathy towards Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

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Trump's comments naturally sparked a huge uproar. In 2016, he Express concern that NATO members are not contributing enough to the alliance. But over the weekend he indicated that those who failed to do so would be left at the mercy of Russia.

“One of the presidents of a great country stood up and said, 'Well, sir, if we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us?' ” he said at a rally in South Carolina. “I said, 'You didn't pay? Are you a delinquent?' He said, 'Yeah, let's say it happened. product.” No, I wouldn't protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do what they want. You have to pay. You have to pay your bills.

It is important to emphasize that this framing is false. The United States has long contributed a significant portion of NATO's resources in money, personnel and equipment. In 1987, while Trump was speaking to CNN at the end of the Cold War, the Congressional Budget Office released a report documenting the difference between the United States and other NATO members. At the time, NATO members were required to spend at least 3 percent of their annual GDP on defense, but, the CBO report notes, only the United States had consistently met that goal.

In 2006, 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO allies set a new target of 2 percent. Five years later, only three countries reached their target: the United States, Greece and the United Kingdom. By the time Trump became the Republican Party's nominee for the 2016 presidential election – running, in part, on the argument that the United States was being battered by the alliance – five countries exceeded the 2 percent mark. In 2022seven were.

Please note that this is not an invoice paid by the member countries of the alliance. Rather, it is an effort to establish readiness, to have sufficient resources available for NATO to be able to fulfill its mission. To oversimplify, you might think of it as trying to set aside 5% of your income to buy Christmas gifts. If you fail, it's not because you owe yourself money; it's that you have less than you expected.

Defense spending relative to GDP is one of two targets that NATO sets for member countries. The other is that members spend one-fifth of their defense budget on equipment, as opposed to personnel or other budget items. On this level, most members are in compliance. In 2014, only seven member countries had a share equal to or greater than 20%; in 2022, almost all were thanks to a strong increase in 2021 and 2022.

Since 2014, NATO members have on average increased both their relative defense spending and the percentage of that spending devoted to equipment. In 2014, NATO members spent 1.4% of their national GDP on defense; in 2022, the average was 1.7 percent. In 2014, an average of 12.9% of defense spending was spent on equipment, and this share will rise to 27.3% in 2022.

You can see the trend below, with the averages shown every two years and the change from 2014 to 2018 to 2022 shown for each of the member countries.

The country that spends the lowest percentage of its GDP on defense is Luxembourg, which in 2022 spent around 0.6% of its GDP. But Luxembourg, with a population of around 640,000, has spent the most on defense relative to its population. Norway comes second and the United States third.

But according to Trump, it is Luxembourg and Norway (which spent around 1.6% of their GDP on defense in 2022) “that are not paying their bills”. Under a Trump presidency, they would therefore apparently be at the mercy of Russia in the event of an invasion.

Note that Trump's rhetoric against US allies in NATO has become more aggressive. despite a vast improvement on what he supposedly finds so offensive about their participation. He says the same thing about NATO as he did in 1987, despite changes in the composition of the alliance and changes in how those members participate in the alliance.

Now consider his approach to Russia. This was of course evident in 2016, with the businessman's affinity for the Russian president already evident.

Since then, however, Trump's warmth toward autocrats and Putin in particular has only deepened. When Russia prepared to launch its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Trump's immediate response was to praise Putin's “genius.” After the invasion began, he called the “smart” movement. Over the past two years, Trump has seen much of his party reorient its foreign policy around his worldview: that U.S. support for Ukraine is excessive — or even that the U.S. I shouldn't be on the side against Russia at all.

What Trump says at his campaign rallies are things he thinks will please his base. The phrase that NATO doesn't pay its bills – negative and dishonest phrasing – has been used for years as a way to ignore the United States' commitment to the alliance. But now, even though members have improved on both metrics set by NATO and even though Russia's hostile ambitions are much more immediately obvious, Trump is going further in his rhetoric. “Let them do what they want.”

It's revealing. The issue Trump is focused on is not ensuring NATO strength. Rather, it seems to be about being indifferent if that is not the case.

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