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NATO’s decade-long battle to boost defense spending

NATO’s decade-long battle to boost defense spending

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NATO’s decade-long battle to boost defense spending

WASHINGTON — When NATO leaders gathered in Wales a decade ago, they jointly agreed to raise the defense spending level to 2 percent of GDP by this year. They almost made it.

In 2014, immediately after Russia roused the slumbering alliance by illegally annexing Crimea, only three countries met that target. That was a source of enormous frustration to the U.S., which was one of the big spenders.

In 2021, on the eve of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, only six allies met the 2 percent target.

This year, only eight countries in the 32-strong club are due to fall short of the deadline.

NATO is now putting extra pressure on those allies not delivering as promised, stressing the need for fair burden-sharing with the U.S. That is driven by the need to Trump-proof the alliance. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, said he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to countries that are “delinquent” in meeting the NATO goal.

Trump made defense spending a top political demand during his presidency. He was especially vociferous about Germany, denouncing the country’s dependence on Russian gas and its reluctance to invest in the military. Berlin aims to reach 2 percent this year, but more as a reaction to Russia’s attack on Ukraine than to brow-beating from the White House.

Ranked from the bottom, the countries on Trump’s “delinquent” list are: Spain (1.28 percent of GDP), Slovenia (1.29 percent), Luxembourg (1.29 percent), Belgium (1.3 percent), Canada (1.37 percent), Italy (1.49 percent), Portugal (1.55 percent) and Croatia (1.81 percent). NATO member Iceland is omitted because it does not have armed forces.

Spain, run by a left-wing government under Pedro Sánchez, says it plans to meet the target by 2029 — five years behind schedule. The eurozone’s fourth-largest economy has prioritized the green transition and digitalization instead.

Alexander De Croo, the outgoing prime minister of Belgium, where NATO is headquartered, has committed to reaching 2 percent, but refused to give a timeline on when that will happen.

Canada stands out as a laggard — only committing to spending 1.76 percent of GDP by 2030.

Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto admitted it will be a struggle for his country to reach 2 percent, calling it “an important but difficult objective,” and adding that won’t happen by 2028.

Squeezing laggards

The pressure on these countries will only rise, driven by the increasing security threats posed by Russia, the stalemate of the war in Ukraine and the possibility of Trump back in the White House.

During the Washington summit, allies are expected to discuss this issue with the underachievers and renew a pledge to honor the 2 percent promise.

But Europeans argue that the long-running gripe from Washington that they aren’t pulling their weight no longer reflects reality.

“American foreign policy experts are always coming up with the same argument, that Europeans are free-riding, Europeans have all these nice social welfare systems and they’re not paying for their defense, but we are spending for defense,” said Edward Hunter Christie, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and a former NATO official. “Most Americans who are interested in foreign affairs believe that to be true.”

In addition to bipartisan pressure from Washington, the Russian threat is also opening wallets.

“Countries close to the source of danger have a clear incentive to spend more,” Christie said. That explains why Poland is spending more than 4 percent of GDP on defense — even more than the U.S. President Andrzej Duda is even advocating for allies to raise the 2 percent target to 3 percent.

Tiny countries such as Luxembourg or Slovenia find it politically difficult to justify spending more on defense. “A small state cannot generate sufficient military force to resist a great power threat. Instead, the priority is either to have a powerful protector or to go neutral. And once inside an alliance, it is tempting to believe that one’s contribution won’t make a decisive difference,” Christie said.

However, geography matters.

“Estonia makes about double the effort, as a share of its GDP, than Slovenia. Both are of a similar small size. One is dangerously close to Russia, the other is not,” he added.

While some are stalling on defense spending, others already north of the 2 percent mark are doing even more.

The U.K.’s new Labour government has promised to spend 2.5 percent of GDP on defense, with calls mounting on ensuring steady spending increases regardless of economic performance.

“What the Ministry of Defence really needs is a guarantee of steady and substantial real-terms growth each year for a decade or more,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense think tank.

NATO officials, for now, are looking for a good story to tell — selling the idea that alliance members are finally pulling their weight.

That will be a key message that NATO’s outgoing Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is set to repeat in Washington — mainly for the Republican audience.

“Defense spending across European allies and Canada is up 18 percent this year alone, 
the biggest increase in decades,” Stoltenberg said ahead of this week’s summit. “Allies are taking burden-sharing seriously.”

Appealing further to American self-interest, Stoltenberg said on a recent trip to the U.S.: “It is also important for the United States to know that a lot of this money is actually spent here in the United States.”

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