NATO Allies’ Defense Spending Continues to Rise, But No Nod to Trump

By Patrick Goodenough | June 15, 2021 | 4:26am EDT
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference in Brussels on Monday night. (Photo by Olivier Hoslet/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference in Brussels on Monday night. (Photo by Olivier Hoslet/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

( – As President Biden was attending the first NATO summit of his presidency, the lingering effects of his predecessor could be seen in the alliance’s most recent defense spending data.

Ten of NATO’s 30 allies have now reached the target of devoting two percent of their national gross domestic product to military spending. That is twice as many as hit the benchmark in 2016.

Neither Biden nor NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in their public comments Monday gave President Trump credit for that, although the former president made the issue a top priority in his often fractious interactions with some NATO allies, notably Germany.

The agreement to move towards a two percent goal predated by Trump’s presidency. It was made by the then-28 allies at a summit in Wales in 2014 – but NATO data show that progress came at a time when Trump was hammering the issue home.

Overall, defense spending by NATO allies rose by 2.7 percent between 2017 and 2018, by 7.7 percent in 2019, by 2.6 percent in 2020, and by 2.1 percent in 2021.

NATO allies' defense spending as a proportion of national GDP in 2016 and 2021. (Montenegro joined in 2017 and Macedonia in 2020. Iceland does not have armed forces.) (Graph: CNSNews / Data: NATO)

Back in 2014, NATO’s European members were spending an average of just 1.3 percent of their GDP on defense. This year, NATO’s estimated average for defense spending among its European members in 2021 stands at 1.76 percent, with every ally having increased its spending.

Adding Canada and the United States, the average in 2021 rises to 2.65 percent.

In 2014, the only allies to be spending at least two percent of their GDP on defense were Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

This year, the number has doubled, with those five joined by Croatia, France, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Meanwhile Norway, Montenegro – which only joined in 2017 – and Slovakia are also approaching the two percent mark.

Not doing as well as some of Europe’s biggest economies. NATO estimates Germany’s defense spending this year will stand at 1.53 percent of GDP – up from 1.2 percent in 2016 but still below the two percent target. The government has said it hopes to reach it by 2031.

Italy and Spain, the E.U.’s third- and fourth-largest economies, are even further behind, at 1.41 percent and 1.02 percent respectively.

As the alliance expands and shifts its focus in a changing security environment, the allies meeting in Brussels agreed that its ambitions need to underpinned by resources, both in funding the NATO budget and in national defense expenditure.

In on-camera remarks with Biden, Stoltenberg reported seven consecutive years of increased defense spending, with an additional $260 billion in outlays across NATO’s European members and Canada.

Biden said the U.S. was pleased about the decision made in Wales in 2014 to increase defense spending, alluding to the two percent of GDP target.

“You’re right, it’s moving up,” he said. “I guess there’s more than 10 countries that have met the goal, and others are on the way.”

He thanked Stoltenberg for his leadership, adding, “a lot of this wouldn’t happen without you.”

Stoltenberg in past years acknowledged the Trump factor.

“I would like to thank President Trump for his leadership on defense spending,” he said at the 2018 summit. “It is clearly having an impact.”

‘Political winds’

Trump’s name came up at a post-summit press briefing by Stoltenberg, when the NATO chief was asked about the contrast between the summit and those attended by Trump in previous years.

“Can you compare your experience at this summit with the U.S. delegation to your experience with – at summits with President Trump?” the Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum asked.

“And was President Biden able to tell you anything that convinced you that Trump, or another Trump-like figure, won’t be back in the White House in a few years and swing the United States back to a more confrontational approach to NATO?”

Stoltenberg in a diplomatic response said NATO as an institution “goes beyond individual political leaders. We can weather political winds and different storms.”

“There will be different political leaders elected in many allied countries in the years to follow,” he added. “But I’m confident that as long as we realize that it is in our security interest to stand together, national security interest to stand together, we will maintain NATO as the bedrock for our security.”

Stoltenberg made a point of welcoming strong “bipartisan” support in the U.S. for NATO.

“I cannot tell you who will be the next political leaders in 30 NATO allied countries, but I can tell you that what we have seen is the strength of strong institutions like NATO, which can deal with also different political – different political leaders that have different opinions about many issues, as we have seen over many years in NATO.”

A Pew poll gauging opinions in ten NATO member countries and published last week found strong levels of support in most; A median of 61 percent of respondents viewed the alliance favorably, while 30 percent held the opposite view.

In the United States, 61 percent of respondents viewed NATO favorably, and 36 percent did not.

Of the ten countries surveyed, only Greece accounted for a majority (57 percent) unfavorable view of NATO, while the alliance received its strongest support in Italy (72 percent), the Netherlands (71 percent) and Sweden (70 percent).

See also:
NATO Summit to Begin; Trump Says Allies ‘Must Pay MORE,’ the US ‘Must Pay LESS’ (July 11, 2018)

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