Former US President Trump’s statement that he only wanted to protect those countries that met the two percent target sparked outrage. But who could Trump’s threat be aimed at?
Even though Donald Trump made his threats in the subjunctive this time, NATO takes them seriously. Trump provokes, as we know from his first term in office. Many allies have painful memories of the personal denial in the first four Trump years. However, his latest attack hits the alliance at its core, according to NATO diplomats, one of whom speaks of the soul of the alliance being hit.
Essentially, Trump has questioned the alliance’s duty to provide assistance. NATO countries that do not meet their financial obligations – that is the message of his election campaign appearance in South Carolina – can no longer count on America to come to their aid in the event of an attack. He would even recommend that the Russians “do whatever the hell they want to do.”
Trump is not the first to call on Europeans to adhere to the two percent target. Barack Obama also did the same during his time in office, albeit in a much friendlier manner. The decision that all NATO member countries should spend two percent of their gross domestic product on defense was made in 2014 in the wake of the annexation of Crimea.
The alliance had to watch, relatively helpless, as Putin was able to conquer the Ukrainian peninsula without any significant resistance. The shock was deep. Saving on defense budgets – those days should be over. The peace dividend after the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to have been used up.
Only eleven countries have achieved the target
Which countries did Trump mean with his attack? According to NATO calculations Only eleven member states will have achieved the two percent target by 2023. At the top is Poland, which spent 3.9 percent of its gross domestic product on the military. This is followed by the USA (3.49 percent), Greece (3.1 percent), Estonia (2.73 percent), Finland (2.45 percent), Romania (2.44 percent), Hungary (2.43 percent) , Latvia (2.27 percent), Great Britain (2.07 percent) and Slovakia (2.03 percent).
Conversely, this means that around two thirds of the 31 NATO countries spent less than the targeted two percent. At the very bottom of the NATO statistics are the Western European countries of Luxembourg, Belgium and Spain. So their chances of receiving American protection are poor if Trump’s statements from the weekend are taken seriously. And if they were to be attacked by Russia – which is considered unlikely even in the event of escalation and makes Trump’s entire thought structure even less credible.
Countries in Eastern and Northeast Europe are seen as at greater risk of falling victim to a Russian attack. However, their military spending is far ahead in relation to their economic strength – here too, Trump’s horror scenario is a bit removed from reality.
Trump may have targeted Germany
But his threat may have been aimed at Germany. Until last year, defense spending was still well below the target, at 1.57 percent. But that has changed, according to the federal government. In Berlin it is expected that defense spending will reach at least 2.0 percent of gross domestic product in the current year 2024, possibly a little more. One reason is the actual increase in defense spending.
The weak economic data also helps. When economic power declines, defense spending becomes proportionally more important. That would be the case even if not a single billion additional dollars were spent on defense. The effect was most recently evident during the economic downturn during the corona pandemic.
Europe must invest more in its own security
However, the new figures should provide relief for Germany in the dispute over fair burden sharing within the alliance. Those who achieve the target will not easily find themselves in the crosshairs of criticism. In NATO circles it is likely that the trend towards higher military spending will continue. And this is completely independent of the question of whether Trump will move into the White House for a second time or not.
Europe’s societies must invest more money in their own security, that is the consensus in the alliance, even if Democrat Joe Biden wins the race in November. However, there is no doubt – and this is the serious difference to his challenger – that Biden stands by the transatlantic alliance and thus the alliance’s promise to come to the aid of any country in the event of an attack.