Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president moves from the Middle East to Europe, with a “mini-summit” with NATO leaders today. The summit organizers have already ruled out a major policy declaration. The event should be notable nevertheless given how frequently the president lambasted the Atlantic alliance on the campaign trail. However, it might also provide a worthwhile opportunity to reinvigorate discussion of why the alliance matters in the twenty-first century and how to judge the contributions of its various members.

To review though, Trump generally criticized American allies during the 2016 campaign for failing to “pay their bills,” threatening to renege on Washington’s Article 5 commitment to come to the defense of European alliances should they come under attack. He referred to the alliance as “obsolete” for its failure to focus on counterterrorism, though he later admitted the characterization at least in part stemmed from his personal ignorance. He has since reversed the statement about the alliance’s obsolescence, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis and others have reaffirmed America’s commitment to Article 5. However, reports surfaced that Trump presented German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a $300 billion bill for previous years of defense the United States has provided its ally (plus interest).

Given the president’s mercurial nature, the mini-summit will pull out all the stops to keep his attention. Reports have surfaced that allied leaders will keep their statements short and complimentary to the American president. The summit, taking place in a new, expensive NATO headquarters in Brussels, will include a great deal of pomp and circumstance. And Russia, perhaps the biggest challenge to the alliance, will not be on the agenda.


Figure 1

A great deal of focus will be on the large gap—see figure 1—between the U.S. contribution to NATO defense spending and the failure of other members to spend the required two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Only four European members of the alliance currently meet that required minimum amount: the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece, and Estonia. But is the two percent of GDP floor for defense spending a worthwhile indicator of the contributions of various alliance members? GDP, as I have argued in a different context, is a poor way to compare defense spending over time due to economic growth. But it is also a poor way to compare defense spending cross-nationally because of the large differences in the size of member states’ economies. For example, Greece makes the list of European countries spending two percent of GDP on defense, but more so because of its faltering economy than a particularly robust contribution to European security.

As Rachel Rizzo and Jim Townshend of the Center for a New American Security argued recently, “it is not only how much a nation spends on defense that matters, but what that nation spends it on and its willingness to use it. More doesn’t always equal better, and there is no guarantee that increased defense spending will lead to more efficient defense spending.” Similarly, Greer Martin and Balaz Martonffy of American University argue that instead of two percent of GDP, the alliance should develop a new metric based on members’ contributions to collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. While they admit that their grading system remains a work in progress, they argue it will be less arbitrary and misleading than the two-percent standard.

But what alliance members’ contributions amount to matters less than what they are contributing to. And the purpose of NATO after the Cold War still remains a matter of debate. Is it a mutual defense pact? If so, defense against what? Or is it a vehicle for European political integration? Those questions should have been integral to the discussion of Montenegro’s accession to the alliance, but they were unfortunately lost in the shuffle as that debate grew increasingly acrimonious.

In reality, questions about mutual defense and the European political project are deeply intertwined. As James Goldgeier, a leading expert on NATO, notes in piece at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, shared liberal democratic values were key features of the alliance’s founding treaty. However, these shared values face pressure from both outside and inside the alliance. Regarding the latter, Goldgeier writes,

“But leaders of other NATO member states, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, have become decidedly anti-democratic. In Erdogan’s case, this was on full display on his recent visit to Washington, when his bodyguards viciously beat up protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence.


These differences within the alliance and between NATO and the Trump administration make it more likely that NATO’s role will become more ad hoc—the United States will turn to NATO when it finds it useful, but will not see it as it has traditionally: the primary partner with which it shares fundamental values.”

It is easy to dismiss those shared values in the alliance’s founding document as mere window dressing on an anti-Soviet military alliance. But they have also served as a bulwark of European economic and political integration—and thus European peace and prosperity—for decades.


Figure 2


Figure 3

While it is understandable why NATO’s existence is so easily conflated with the Soviet Union, it makes it harder to explain its purpose—and thus maintain support for it—absent concern about the Red Army pouring through the Fulda Gap. A recent Pew survey suggests that support for NATO on both sides of the Atlantic has improved in 2017. In the United States, 62 percent of respondents had a favorable view of NATO (see figure 2). Unfortunately, as is often the case with foreign policy issues, these results vary greatly when broken down along partisan lines, likely having to do with how elites in each party view the alliance (see figure 3). Among Republicans—whose party just won the presidency with a candidate who spent the campaign bashing America’s European allies—only 47 percent view NATO favorably. On the other hand, 78 percent of Democrats view the alliance favorably. But that figure is up sharply from 58 percent in 2016, suggesting it might have something to do with Democratic elites pushing back against Trump’s recurring hostility toward the alliance.

While it will not be on the agenda at tomorrow’s mini-summit, reaffirming the purpose of NATO remains important. Both the public, and even the leaders of some of the alliance’s member states, need to be reminded why the shared values enshrined in its founding documents matter. In the meantime, developing new metrics for measuring individual members’ contributions can help that process by preventing demagoguery about free riding allies from becoming an issue that turns domestic opinion against the alliance.