Diplomacy apart, I had serious reservations nay doubts when I read reports yesterday that President Trump had apparently ‘presented’ German Chancellor, Angela Merkel with a $395 billion ‘bill’ representing the pre-supposed short-fall amount that the President and maybe others believe that Germany needs to pay the US or NATO in order to make good what are claimed to be NATO-agreed defence spending minimums missed over the past 15 years.
To be sure, there was nothing wrong with the story or even the reporting. President Trump had after all ‘tweeted’ a belief that Germany in his view owes NATO large sums for underspending on defence and also that in his view the US must be paid more [in future] for the powerful and very expensive, defence that it provides to Germany [and other NATO members presumably] but the notion that America had or even would really demand back payments for what it now perceives as a ‘black hole’ when there are no protocols confirming what each nation needs to pay into NATO is in my view nothing short of ridiculous.
One of many responses to the Trump tweet came from Ivo Daalder, a past US ambassador to NATO serving between 2009 and 2013, who tweeted that having said what he had, “it was clear that President Trump did not understand how NATO’s funding system worked”. This was a clear reference to the fact that under the present system of rules governing NATO, all countries decide for themselves how much they pay into the cost of NATO and for overall collective defence that it provides; of what capability in respect of equipment and manpower they can offer up and also in respect of where they might feel comfortable to deploy forces in support of allies. That fact in relation to how NATO is currently funded includes the USA itself – the point here being that there is no official commitment in respect of funding any other countries defence. Daalder also reminded that while the US carries the largest burden of NATO cost no actual ‘funds’ are paid by any individual NATO member state and as far as I am aware, they never have been.
On a separate tack, Mr Daalder said that given the growing Russian threat means that “Europe must spend more on defence, but not as a favour (or payment) to the US” moreover “because their [own] security requires it”. He added that “the US provides large military commitment to NATO. But that is not a favour to Europe, it is vital for our own (US) security”.
All the above said, it was of no surprise that the US President would use the opportunity presented by the state visit to Washington DC of Chancellor Merkel ten-days ago to raise the issue of German defence spending and importantly, use the opportunity to stress that Germany will need to pay substantially more for defence in the years to come and in particular, that it along with other NATO allies must help reduce the overall burden of NATO costs that the US has born unfairly fro rather too long.
Arguably, Britain has carried more than its fair share of the NATO burden as well but in defence of France lest any accusations might be made against them that are similar to those frequently heard against Germany, it is worth recording here that France only ended its four-year rift with NATO by re-joining in 2009.
President Bush did receive one reassurance from the German Chancellor and that was that her Government is genuine in its intention to raise defence spending over the coming years and to reach the 2% of GDP level by 2024. I can of course hear you saying ‘big deal’ in response and to that I can merely say – yes it really is a big deal for a country like Germany and that I have little idea of how this will be achieved without causing a major political dilemma.
The response of German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen to reports that Germany will need to make large back-payments to cover the difference between the 1.2% of GDP that it currently achieves and the 2% of GDP that all NATO countries signed up to ‘working toward’ back in September 2014 in Wales was simply that “there’s no debtor’s account at NATO” and thus “to tie the 2% of defence spending that we want to achieve in the middle of the next decade only to NATO is wrong”. She went on to claim that “German military spending also goes to UN peacekeeping missions, [specific] European-run operations as well as Berlin’s contribution to the fight against Islamic State (IS/ISIL/ISIS).
Such defensive and indeed angry remarks from the German Defence Minister are perfectly understandable just as they are also technically perfectly correct. But they cannot hide from expressed concerns of others in respect of Germany’s continuing reluctance to deploy when required on shall we say the ‘same terms’ as other NATO members and also that German defence capability is only ever available in the defensive as opposed to combative role. I am reminded of when some years ago whilst taking a Q&A session following an address of when I was asked the rather too pertinent question of ‘why Germany keeps all its military equipment capability locked away in the garage’?
While Germany spends just 1.23% of GDP on defence compared to the 1.9% spent by France and the 2% that Britain claims to spend, the German Chancellor is at least on record now confirming that Germany is committed to achieving a 2% of GDP spending goal on defence by 2024. While all of the 28 NATO members who currently spend less than 2% of GDP on defence have signed up to the commitment to work toward spending 2% of GDP annually, for those that may not be aware, currently only five NATO members – USA, UK, Greece, Poland and Estonia – are already doing so. For the record, the US currently spends around 3.3% of GDP on defence. Poland represents an excellent example of one of the new NATO members that has risen to the challenge of spending more on defence for obvious reasons of who it neighbours. Greece of course in a tiny busted economy and this defence GDP figure is in reality, unrepresentative. The UK has clouded the issue somewhat in order to get to 2% of GDP through adding large amounts of cyber and intelligence related activity into the defence budget along with MOD pensions and Trident replacement although it is worth noting that £500 million is being added to the defence budget in each of the five years following 2015/16.
No doubt the very well respected German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and who has an important General Election to face in September this year let alone, assuming she wins that and wishes to stay post 2022, the possibility of another in that year which would still be two years before the self-set 2024 2% of GDP on Defence deadline referred to above will very probably no longer be Germany’s Chancellor by then.
But, the genuine hope of all of us, no matter what you may happen to think of Trump tactics, manner and approach to these crucially important defence related matters, is surely that he having now re-iterated a ‘strong commitment’ to NATO during Angela Merkel’s visit to Washington DC, that actions begin to speak louder than words in fellow NATO member states in relation to the need to raise defence spending.
I for one believe that Donald Trump was absolutely right to do all that he could to encourage Germany to increase its defence spending to 2% of GDP as quickly as possible and I have a feeling that despite all the unnecessary and ridiculous notions about the EU doing its own thing, that the message is getting through to other European members of NATO.
In drawing this ‘commentary’ to a close it may be worth noting here that close to half of the total number of US armed force members currently in Europe are deployed in Germany. Thus for Germany to attempt to dismiss Trump’s expressed concerns will only serve to act against it. Indeed, I take the view that there can and should be no dismissal by Germany of expressed US concerns and the same applies to all other NATO members.
While I am no fan of the specific 2% of GDP work toward ‘agreement’ believing this to be a driven pre-arranged ‘fudge’ ahead of the NATO Wales Summit in order that Prime Minister David Cameron had something to show for hosting the event, I do believe that every member of NATO needs to contribute more to collective defence that NATO provides and also that each must if it can and has the resource, be prepared to deploy when required. I also believe that ensuring that each member state is persuaded to ensure that they have sufficient levels of equipment and manpower is far more important than going for easy to set GDP goals and financial commitment. Finally, I believe that NATO must agree on specialisms – meaning that those countries better equipped to do land operation be encouraged to take a heavier share of that burden and equally, those who have long time specialism in air power and maritime resource do the same more. That, it appears to me, is what the UK and France, UK and Turkey and hopefully, UK and Germany may well be moving closer toward as well.
On the latter point, suggestions last week that Britain and Germany may be preparing to sign a new defence agreement that would see UK helicopters possibly based on German naval ships and some aspects of military training being shared such as cyber-security, maritime patrol and for an increase in joint exercises have not it seems been dismissed by the UK Government. Indeed, the MOD was actually reported by ‘The Times’ last week to have suggested that a pact highlighted what it termed as being “a joint vision of future cooperation”.
In Berlin, the German Defense Ministry also made mention on the suggestion saying only that “independent of effects of Brexit, the UK remains a strong [defence] partner and ally in NATO and also bilaterally”.
There is no smoke without fire and it is also true that UK Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon is on record as saying back in October 2016 that “Britain stands together with Germany to face the same challenges including the threat from Daesh (Islamic State) and it shares the same values of liberty, tolerance and justice” adding that “while the UK may be leaving the EU, our commitment to European security remains steadfast and [we will] continue as a leading member of NATO, the cornerstone of our defence”.
CHW (London 27th March 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785