NATO Chief Urges Joint Spending as Budget Debate Rolls on

February 17, 2021

BRUSSELS  — Donald Trump is no longer around as president to berate U.S. allies in Europe and Canada for failing to spend enough on their defense budgets. But the debate about military spending appears likely to continue to rage at NATO, even under President Joe Biden.

So, in an effort to improve "burden sharing" — the way the 30 member countries contribute cash, military hardware and troops to operations run by the world's biggest security organization — Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is proposing that allies jointly fund more of NATO's work.

Stoltenberg said he will urge defense ministers, at a two-day videoconference starting Wednesday, "to increase NATO's funding for our core deterrence and defense activities." It's new U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's first NATO meeting.

The plan would mean jointly funding battlegroups of troops on standby in member countries bordering Russia, aerial policing operations, the deployment of warships on permanent maritime duties or military exercises. It would not be used for active military operations outside NATO territory.

At the moment, Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of the meeting, "the country that provides the capabilities also provides the funding. So, if you send some troops to the NATO battlegroup in Lithuania, as Norway does, then Norway pays for that. I think that we should change that."

The former Norwegian prime minister believes that by spending more together, members would also be demonstrating their commitment to defend each other if one comes under attack, which is the common defense clause enshrined in Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty.

Early in his presidency, standing outside NATO headquarters near a monument to the 9/11 attacks when the allies rallied to the defense of the United States, Trump suggested that the U.S. might not come to the rescue of partners who fail to spend 2% of GDP on defense. That threat damaged trust at NATO.

"Spending more together would demonstrate the strength of our commitment to Article 5, our promise to defend each other. And it would contribute to fairer burden-sharing," said Stoltenberg.

Still, his plan has surprised a few members of the 30-nation alliance.

Some NATO diplomats have given it a cautious welcome. Questions remain over where the money would come from. NATO has a relatively small in-house budget of around $2 billion, but most of this is taken up with administrative and infrastructure costs, like running the Brussels headquarters.

NATO already has a number of trust funds and few countries want to create more. Justifying greater military spending when budgets have already been ravaged by restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus is also hard to sell to weary publics.

There is also concern that certain countries might see it as a bailout when they should just be spending more, or that NATO's ability to act might be slowed by more arguments over money. Some think it's an ill-conceived plan, proposed without proper consultation and meant to mollify the United States.

The funding would favor countries that do more within NATO, and the U.S. leads a battlegroup in Poland so its costs would be covered under such a budget.

NATO members began to cut defense spending after the Cold War but were spurred back into action after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Since then, European allies and Canada have together spent an extra $190 billion on their national military budgets, according to Stoltenberg.

Nine of the 30 countries are likely to spend the guideline figure of 2% of GDP this year — the U.S., Greece, Britain, Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania — up from three in 2014. U.S. spending has in fact declined since 2014, but the country still spends more than all its allies combined.

Even with this increased spending and the departure of Trump, America's partners at NATO expect Biden to be just as demanding about military spending. The tone may have changed, but not the substance of a complaint that has been made by U.S. presidents for well over a decade.


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