“The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”
In the story of Chicken Little, a little bird ran around invoking mass hysteria over the end of the world after an acorn fell on his head. Since the announcement of this year’s election results, many Americans have questioned what the future holds for their country, particularly in regards to treaties with allies. Browsing through the dramatic headlines, one might believe an apocalypse is imminent based on the controversy surrounding NATO.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was created back in 1949 after World War II. The countries who signed agreed that an armed attack against any one of them in Europe or North America would be considered an attack against all of them. Consequently, all members agreed that in the instance of an attack, each of them would take necessary actions to assist the others. Its political mission is to promote democratic values and to encourage cooperation in defense and security issues to prevent conflicts in the long run.
There have been many critics of NATO over the last few years, with select Americans being the loudest among them. The United States accounts for roughly 70% of the total NATO defense budget, shelling out an estimated $650 billion last year, more than double the amount of all other 27 NATO countries combined. According to the treaty, every member should be spending 2%, but this stipulation has consistently been ignored by almost 90% of the alliance. This has repeatedly been a sore point for Americans, with even President Obama referring to the other members as “free-riders” back in an interview in 2013. Obama recalled warning then British Prime Minister David Cameron, that, “You have to pay your fair share,” or else face the end of the relationship between London and Washington. After that, the U.K. increased defense spending to slightly more than 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP).
Perhaps thinly veiled threats are essential to get things going.
President-elect Donald Trump has gone on record slamming NATO, calling it obsolete, stating that he would pull American troops out of Europe, Japan, and South Korea. However, after someone presumably gave Trump a crash course in what that would entail, reports are filtering in that he has since backpedaled on this pledge. With his election victory, many in Europe and Asia almost went into hysterics, worrying about their military defense. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to contact and arrange a meeting with Trump.
It was quite the strategic move, seeing as how Trump has argued for decades that America is losing to Japan on trade because Tokyo is playing the markets unfairly. Although many are calling for Abe to demonstrate and discuss the benefits of working together with Trump, his focus on domestic policies may ultimately be the best decision not only for Japan but the other NATO members as well.
NATO remains valuable to its members for a number of reasons. Most notably, the expansion of the alliance has played a critical role in consolidating stability and democracy in Central Europe, where many countries continue to rely on NATO as a hedge against the growing threat of Russia and extremist attacks from fringe terrorist groups. Both Japan and South Korea lean on their NATO members for protection against volatile North Korea and China.
Consequently, it only made sense for Japan to reach out to Trump to ensure they still have the weight of the US behind them, especially with North Korea publishing commentary praising Trump’s threat of pulling American troops out of South Korea. Back in May, Trump even claimed he was willing to hold direct negotiations with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. And back in a March interview with the New York Times, he suggested that perhaps Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons to combat threats instead of using American money and troops for their defense.
I strongly disagree. The world does not need more nuclear weapon development- that’s asking for trouble. The US needs to stay involved in NATO to secure a prosperous Atlantic community and protect the global markets, so it’s reassuring to hear from the chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, General Petr Pavel, that the US would still come to the defense, unconditionally, of any fellow member that is attacked. However, with support for NATO waning over the last few years, I do believe changes need to be made to ensure its relevance, power, and crisis management are improved.
The need for change is clear. In 2016, according to NATO figures, just five of the alliance’s 28 member states will meet the 2% GDP defense spending target. The U.S. will spend 3.61%, Greece 2.38%, the UK 2.21%, Estonia 2.16%, and Poland 2%. If bankrupt Greece and tiny Estonia can meet this 2% stipulation, what’s holding back the more economically stable countries?
France’s defense spending sits at 1.78%, Turkey at 1.56%, and Norway at 1.54%. Germany, which has the largest economy in Europe, spends just 1.19% of its GDP on defense. It gets worse. The Netherlands and Denmark each spend 1.17%, Spain spends a whopping 0.91%, and waffle-sharing Belgium allocates only 0.85%.
These statistics are striking when compared with what the US spends. Although I detest almost every vile word that comes from him, Trump’s outspoken stance on forcing accountability for NATO obligations carries some merit. Expecting one country to carry the enormous responsibility of shouldering the weight of defense creates a global police force mentality that sparks resentment towards Americans. No one likes having Dad over their shoulder, watching what they do and threatening to pull out the belt if they step out of line.
Trump’s stance on NATO also provides an opportunity for European countries to design an alliance for their own needs, one that would cater to their specific situations and threats. With Trump focusing on American domestic issues, other countries, such as Japan, Germany, or the United Kingdom, have the chance to become the leaders of the free trading bloc while the US sorts itself out. There are many variables at play, but undoubtedly, NATO members need to step up and begin meeting their obligations to build a stronger voice in foreign policy issues.
We still don’t know where things will go. Trump is notorious for flip-flopping on all issues, constantly backpedaling or conveniently forgetting his previous claims. In the interim, NATO members should be building up their capacity to defend themselves. Truthfully, this should have been happening all along. This is the best way to prepare for what the future brings, regardless of whether the “Chicken Littles” of the world are right or not.