The dishonest spending rhetoric that masks Trump’s Russia sympathies

One of the first times that Donald Trump spoke publicly about NATO was during an appearance on Larry King’s CNN show in 1987. The subject was broached by a caller who argued that NATO and West Germany — this was before the collapse of the Soviet Union — should pay for their own defense.

Trump agreed, arguing (as he has so often since) that places like Japan that have an American military presence should pay for the privilege.

“There are many other countries” that are “taking tremendous advantage of this, including NATO,” Trump said. “If you look at the payments that we’re making to NATO, they’re totally disproportionate with everybody else’s. And it’s ridiculous.”

Over the intervening four decades or so, Trump’s rhetoric hasn’t really changed much. What have changed are the geopolitical realities and Trump’s own ambitions. Now, as he did over the weekend, Trump uses the idea of NATO allies “owing” money to the organization — which none do — as cover for his obvious empathy toward Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

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Trump’s comments have understandably triggered an enormous outcry. Back in 2016, he expressed concern that NATO members weren’t contributing enough to the alliance. Over the weekend, though, he indicated that those who didn’t would be left to Russia’s mercy.

“One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, ‘Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?’ ” he claimed during a rally in South Carolina. “I said, ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’ He said, ‘Yes, let’s say that happened.’ No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.”

It’s important to point out that this framing is false. It has long been the case that the United States contributes a large chunk of NATO’s resources in money, personnel and equipment. Back in 1987, when Trump was talking to CNN at the tail end of the Cold War, the Congressional Budget Office released a report documenting the difference between the United States and other NATO members. At the time, NATO members were called to spend at least 3 percent of their annual gross domestic product on defense but, the CBO report noted, only the United States had consistently hit that mark.

In 2006, 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the NATO allies set a new target of 2 percent. Five years later, only three countries were hitting the target: the United States, Greece and Britain. By the time Trump had become the Republican Party nominee for the 2016 presidential election — running, in part, on the argument that the United States was getting a raw deal from the alliance — five countries were over the 2 percent mark. In 2022, seven were.

Note that this is not a bill paid by member countries to the alliance. It is, instead, an effort to establish preparedness, to have enough resources that NATO is able to fulfill its mission. To oversimplify, you might think of it like trying to set aside 5 percent of your income to buy Christmas presents. If you fall short, it’s not that you owe yourself money; it’s that you have less than you had hoped.

Defense spending relative to GDP is one of two targets that NATO sets for member nations. The other is that members spend a fifth of their defense budgets on equipment, as opposed to personnel or other line items. On that metric, most members are in compliance. In 2014, only seven member nations were at or over 20 percent; in 2022, nearly all were, thanks to a surge in 2021 and 2022.

Since 2014, NATO members have on average both increased their relative spending on defense and the percentage of that spending that’s on equipment. In 2014, NATO members spent 1.4 percent of their national GDPs on defense; by 2022, the average was 1.7 percent. In 2014, an average of 12.9 percent of defense spending was on equipment, rising to 27.3 percent in 2022.

You can see the trend below, with averages indicated for every two years and the change from 2014 to 2018 to 2022 indicated for each of the member countries.

The country that spends the lowest percentage of its GDP on defense is Luxembourg, which in 2022 spent an estimated 0.6 percent of GDP. But Luxembourg — population about 640,000 — spent the most on defense relative to population. Norway was in second and the United States in third.

But according to Trump, this is Luxembourg and Norway (which spent an estimated 1.6 percent of GDP on defense in 2022) “not paying their bills.” Under a Trump presidency, they would therefore apparently be at Russia’s mercy if invaded.

Notice that Trump’s rhetoric against the United States’ NATO allies has gotten more aggressive despite a broad improvement in the thing that he supposedly finds so offensive about their participation. He says the same thing about NATO he said in 1987, despite changes in membership and changes in how those members participate in the alliance.

Now consider his approach to Russia. This was obvious back in 2016, of course, with the businessman’s affinity for Russia’s president already obvious.

Since then, though, Trump’s warmth toward autocrats and Putin in particular has become only more pronounced. When Russia prepared to launch its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Trump’s immediate response was to praise Putin’s “genius.” After the invasion began, he called the move “smart.” Over the past two years, Trump’s seen much of his party reorient its foreign policy around his worldview: that American support for Ukraine is excessive — or even that the United States shouldn’t side against Russia at all.

What Trump says at his campaign rallies are things that he believes his base will enjoy. The line about how NATO doesn’t pay its bills — a negative, dishonest framing — has been used for years as a way to shrug at the United States’ commitment to the alliance. But now, even as members have improved relative to both metrics NATO establishes and even as Russia’s hostile ambitions are much more immediately obvious, Trump takes the rhetoric further. “Let them do whatever they want.”

It’s revealing. The issue on which Trump is focused is not ensuring that NATO is strong. It seems instead to be about being indifferent if it isn’t.

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