Why Donald Trump’s attacks on NATO might make some leaders less likely to spend more
His attacks come as the 29 members of the alliance prepare to meet this week in Brussels and ahead of a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that will come just days after the NATO meeting wraps up.
But while previous American leaders have made similar calls for members to increase their defence spending, Trump’s unpopularity could mean some leaders at the meeting will be even less inclined to consider his demands and more likely to focus on the problems with relying on what one expert calls a “broken” system for measuring contributions.
“He’s actually making it harder for countries to increase their defence spending,” said Steve Saideman, who holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University and spoke to Global News ahead of heading to the meeting in Brussels.
“It’s so unpopular to succumb to Trump’s demands that politicians will compete to distance themselves from Trump because he’s so widely reviled in Europe. To try and do things to satisfy him will make politicians less popular, not more popular.”
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The two per cent target at the heart of the matter was agreed on by NATO members in 2014.
It is not a rule and it is not “owed,” as Trump suggested last year when he argued at the 2017 NATO summit that members “owe massive amounts of money from past years.”
Rather, the two per cent target acts as a guideline to try to get member states to increase their defence spending to two per cent of GDP by 2024.
The idea behind it is that all members share a common interest in a secure Europe and agree to invest in the capabilities to keep it safe and secure by spending an amount leaders deem is sufficient to keep their militaries in strong working order.
Since agreeing to aim for two per cent investment in 2014, collective spending by NATO members on defence has gone up almost five per cent
“There have now been three consecutive years of growth since 2014,” wrote NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in his 2017 annual report.
The United States spends more than any other country in the world on its military.
Its military budget of roughly $611 billion makes up 3.57 per cent of its GDP, outpacing by far the other 28 members of the alliance.
In 2014, only three countries met the two per cent goal: United States, the United Kingdom and Greece.
In 2018, as Stoltenberg outlined in an editorial this weekend in the Wall Street Journal, that number is set to increase to eight with the additions of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania.
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“Furthermore, a majority of allies have plans to meet their 2 per cent commitments by 2024, while the rest are moving in the right direction,” he wrote.
Canada is not on track to meet the two per cent target by 2024.
Under the Defence Policy Review released in 2017, which outlined the government’s military spending plan, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government would instead try to hit 1.4 per cent of GDP spending on defence by that same time.
Currently, Canada spends between 0.9 and 1.3 per cent of its GDP on defence, depending on how it is calculated.
However, the inclusion of Greece on that list shows the metric is a red herring as a tool for measuring contributions, said Elinor Sloan, an international relations professor at Carleton University and former defence analyst with the Department of National Defence.
“There’s a lot of problems with that figure,” she said, noting Canada has the sixth-largest defence budget out of NATO members and participates in NATO missions such as the one taking place currently in Latvia.
“Greece, for example, has a GDP commitment well over 2 per cent, but Greece does very little for NATO and so it is a very artificial, misleading number.”
Saideman expressed similar concerns.
“Since it’s a percentage of GDP, countries that have smaller GDPs can look better more easily, such as Greece,” he said.
“Greece shows how the metric is kind of broken because Greece never shows up and never contributes to major military operations whereas Canada, which has underspent, tends to do things at least over the last 10 to 15 years that are what they call ‘at the pointy edge of the spear.'”
“The problem is it’s a measure of what countries spend, not what they do,” he said.
Even so, such points are unlikely to deter attacks by Trump on members over the coming days, both said.
Neither are reports that Canada is set to extend for another three years its leadership of the NATO mission in Latvia, aimed at deterring Russian aggression.
“It’ll be out there, it’ll be a factor,” said Sloan of the mission extension. “But I think this administration especially, all they see is that number.”
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