Will Biden’s rhetoric on NATO military spending differ from Trump’s?

Since Donald Trump took office in 2017 as the 45th President of the United States, the American internal political approach changed dramatically in some areas. Similar dynamics have taken place with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the Trump Administration was harsh on its European NATO partners, demanding for higher military spending. Established in 1949, NATO is a military and defence alliance between the US, Canada, and Europe, against the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. As Biden passes his first 100 days, it has yet to be seen if Trump’s rhetoric will be more successful than now-President Biden.

The 2014 annexation of Crimea, the continuing conflict in East Ukraine, higher military commitment by the US in the Indo-Pacific region, and the election of a highly realist president like Donald Trump, pushed the US to call on European allies to contribute more to the common defence spending of NATO. The Trump Administration urged for a two percent GDP spending on defence by NATO members, which in 2017 was reached by only four countries. The US covers approximately 50 percent of the total NATO members nominal GDP, with its defence spending accounting for 72 percent of the total NATO alliance.



Table 3: Defence expenditure as a share of GDP and annual real change.



While in 2017 only four countries met Trump’s demands, in 2020 this number increased to 10, with three additional countries spending between 1.9-2.0 percent. Moreover, between 2017 and 2020 all 27 European member states showed an increase in defence spending as a share of annual GDP. The table shows that Eastern European members are more willing to fulfill the US demand -- making up 7 out of the 10 European member states that reached the two percent limit -- as NATO membership is crucial for them due to their geopolitical proximity to Russia. They are countries reflecting a larger increase over time, too: Bulgaria 1.23 - 1.93 percent; Czechia 1.04 - 1.43 percent; Latvia 1.60 - 2.32 percent; Lithuania 1.71 - 2.28 percent; Montenegro 1.35 - 1.91 percent; Romania 1.72 - 2.38 percent; Slovak Republic 1.11 - 1.86 percent; and, Poland 1.89 - 2.30 percent.

Trump’s main target was not Eastern Europe, but a crucial western member state and the biggest European economy, Germany, which he accused of “dishonest behaviour”. Trump even threatened the withdrawal of US Troops, but President Biden reversed that order. It looks like Germany has no intention of reaching the two percent mark, or that it will by 2024 as initially planned. Now with President Biden the European member states hope for return to normalcy, ending mutual tariffs on each other's goods. The United States seems to have gotten back in touch with Europe, but despite the more pleasant tone, the new Administration looks set to remain firm on pushing for more commitment. As Jens Stoltenberg NATO’s Secretary General affirmed: “The threats and the challenges we face in this region are more and more global.”

One thing is clear, the United States’s commitment to NATO is “unshakable,” as President Biden affirmed. There are indications that demanding more spending on defence from Europe has bipartisan support and that the concept is continuous and necessary, as Press Secretary Psaki stated: "I know he [Donald Trump] thought he invented that, but having worked in the Obama administration, I can say the objective has always been encouraging members of NATO to pay more, pushing members of NATO to pay more." The two percent goal originated during the 2014 NATO summit in Wales. President Biden will make his first overseas flight to Europe in June this year to the G-7 Summit in Cornwall, UK and the NATO Summit in Brussels, which will grant the opportunity to both sides to confirm their commitment to NATO.

Trump’s rhetoric on military spending had partial success as just nine European members of the 28 reached two percent. But it is progress nonetheless, as all members have shown consistent increase in their defence spending with further progress to be expected. The United States requires and at the same time urges Europe for a larger contribution. A fragile European Union and a rebel Turkey may find themselves in the middle of a global grand strategy and power fight, if NATO does not remain strong.