The Real Problems With NATO

What Trump Gets Right, and Wrong

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speak at NATO headquarters in Brussels, February 2017. Eric Vidal / Reuters

On February 17–19, NATO leaders gathered at the annual Munich Security Conference to reassert their commitments to mutual defense. For the Europeans, the conference provided the first up-close glimpse at the defense policies of U.S. President Donald Trump, who had previously dismissed NATO as “obsolete” and had expressed doubt that the future of the EU “matters much for the United States.” The conference also came shortly after U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis told European leaders that “Americans cannot care more for your children’s security than you do.”

Despite a tense atmosphere, both the Americans and the Europeans were on their best behavior in Munich: both U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed their continued commitment to the alliance. Yet the truth is that, renewal of vows notwithstanding, transatlantic relations are facing their greatest challenge in decades, with a resurgent Russia in the east, a European Union undergoing its biggest domestic crisis in decades, and a U.S. administration that is evidently impatient with its allies’ free-riding. 

NATO needs reform. Washington’s recipe for what needs to be done, however, which largely consists of getting the Europeans to adhere to rigid defense spending targets, is similar to the obsessions of old Soviet economic planners—concerned with inputs rather than outputs. As a result, the Trump administration’s focus on burden-sharing obscures how NATO might really be made more effective, while inhibiting the development of a healthier U.S.-European defense relationship. 


The United States has long attempted to shame Europe into spending more on defense. In 2011, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that NATO faced a “dismal future” of “collective military irrelevance” unless its European members increased their financial contributions. The Trump administration’s complaints are thus largely accurate—the Europeans can and must do more to support the transatlantic alliance. In 2014, for instance, NATO member states pledged to increase their defense spending to two percent of GDP by 2024, but

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