The NATO We Have and the NATO We Seek

Angela Merkel at NATO summit (Alexandros Michailidis via Shutterstock)

by Diana Ohlbaum

Donald Trump has thrown the “free world” into a tizzy with his ultimatum to European allies to increase their defense spending, his public questioning of why America should have to defend Montenegro, his classification of the European Union as a “foe” on trade, and his sycophantic slavering over a Russian leader whose highest foreign policy priority is the destruction of NATO.

If the Europeans had any spine, instead of politely listening to Trump’s fulminations about the need to immediately meet the NATO defense spending target of two percent of GDP—a guideline they previously had agreed to “aim to move towards” by 2024—they would have castigated the United States for spending so little on global development.

Say what? Who says the United States isn’t spending enough on foreign aid?

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for starters. Most members of NATO are also members of the OECD, and vice versa. For nearly 50 years, this group of high-income countries has endorsed a target of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) in official development assistance to poor countries. Seven donors—Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, UAE, and the United Kingdom—met or exceeded the target in 2017. The United States, at only 0.18%, is far behind other wealthy countries.

U.S. military leaders have also decried the paucity of civilian aid resources. Earlier this year, a group of 151 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals warned Congress against proposed reductions to diplomacy and development, saying such deep cuts would diminish America’s global influence and jeopardize battlefield gains. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while serving as commander of the U.S. Central Command, once explained:

If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately. So I think it’s a cost benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene..

Over the years, the United States has justified its underperformance on development assistance by citing the relatively larger portion of the burden that it shoulders on defense. If President Trump succeeds in goading the Europeans to dramatically increase their military spending, then he ought to pony up an extra $100 billion per year to pay the U.S. fair share on development. That’s almost three times what the United States spends now, but just slightly more than the amount of the increase in the Pentagon budget since 2017 and considerably less than the Pentagon loses to administrative waste.

This is not to suggest throwing money at development. There is plenty of evidence that pumping in funds without local accountability, oversight, and direction can actually make things worse. But NATO countries contribute only a tiny fraction of what will be needed to achieve global goals for improving human development, and the very areas of spending that are most important to security and stability are the most underfunded. A new report by the OECD estimates that in 2016, only two percent of total development aid to fragile countries went to conflict prevention, and only 10 percent went to peace-building.

Europe must wake up to the fact that Trump and his cronies aren’t trying to strengthen NATO or level the economic playing field. They’re doing Putin’s bidding to destabilize Europe. NATO already vastly outspends Russia on defense—even without the U.S. contribution. Trump’s call for more defense spending is a thinly veiled attempt to force NATO countries to reduce their social spending at home, which would likely inflame national, ethnic, racial, religious, class, and political tensions. If NATO is to achieve its purpose of “guaranteeing the freedom and security of its members through political and military means,” it should invest more not in preparing for war, but in waging peace. Congress, in exercising its power of the purse, should do the same.

Diana Ohlbaum

Diana Ohlbaum is senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy. She previously served for nearly 20 years as a senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Ohlbaum holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Russian studies from Amherst College. Follow her on Twitter: @dohlbaum



  1. Sadly, this article repeats the author’s Russophobic bias of her prior posting on this site.

    It would behoove the editors to publish commentary and factual narrative by experts such as Ray McGovern, Former Ambassador Jack Matlock, and Prof. Stephen Cohen who have had years of experience on this subject, and, at the very least, could provide some rational counterbalance to such opinions.

  2. European leaders of today have to be approved by Washington. Washington bugs their phones and not a peep. Many European firms and their employees benefit from trade with Russia and Iran. And yet sanctions and prohibitions. Why would they finally grow a spine here?

  3. Does really Russia pose a threat to European countries in a same level as former USSR? Or even in a comparable level?
    It is the war merchants and military industries that are benefited to keep the cold war attitude for ever. An army needs an enemy otherwise it should retire! And it is up to beneficiaries of NATO to make one!

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