Fact check: Debunking five false Trump claims about NATO

For a third straight presidential election campaign, former President Donald Trump is being serially inaccurate about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance.

Trump caused a transatlantic uproar this weekend by claiming at a Saturday campaign rally that he had once told the president of a “big” NATO country that if that country didn’t pay its “bills,” he would not protect the country from a Russian invasion and would even “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want.”

Trump’s incendiary remarks contained a familiar false claim. His assertion about NATO allies supposedly having failed to pay “bills” is not true, as fact-checkers at CNN and elsewhere have pointed out for years.

And Trump has for years made a variety of other false claims about spending by NATO and its members. Here is a fact check of five of his repeated statements.

Spending by NATO members

Trump has long claimed that various NATO members have failed to pay their “bills,” “dues” or “NATO fees,” that they “owe us a tremendous amount of money” or that they “owe NATO billions of dollars.”

Facts First: All of these Trump claims are false. While a majority of NATO members do not meet the alliance’s target of each member spending a minimum of 2% of gross domestic product on defense, the 2% target is a “guideline” that does not create bills, debts or legal obligations if it is not met. In fact, the guideline doesn’t require payments to NATO or the US at all. Rather, it simply requires each country to spend on their own defense programs.

When Trump was president, the guideline was written in forgiving language that made clear that it was not a firm commitment. That version of the guideline, created at a NATO summit in Wales in 2014, said members that had yet to reach 2% would “aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s capability shortfalls.” In other words, the members that were below 2% in 2014 didn’t even have to promise to hit the target by 2024 – simply to make an effort to do so by then.

NATO does require members to make direct contributions to fund the organization’s own operations. But there is no sign that members have failed to make those contributions, which constitute a tiny fraction of the allies’ defense spending, and Trump has made clear that his talk of debts is about the 2% guideline.

Stephen Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University in Canada, said in a Monday email that the word “inaccurate really does not cover Trump’s protection racket/country club perception of dues owed to the US.”

“The money, as you and everyone else knows, is not sent from member states to the US or NATO (although there is a common fund that pays for the buildings in Brussels and elsewhere but it is not that much money and is not the focus of the 2% discussions). The commitment is for each country to spend enough on their own militaries – 2% of GDP, 20% of defense spending on equipment – so that the alliance as a whole is capable and can credibly deter Russia and do whatever else the alliance agrees to,” Saideman said.

As of 2023, 11 of 30 NATO members were meeting the 2% target, NATO estimates show. That was up from three members in 2014.

Erwan Lagadec, a research professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and director of its Transatlantic Program, noted in a Monday email that NATO members agreed to firmer language related to the 2% target in 2023, formally declaring that “we make an enduring commitment to invest at least 2% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually on defence.” Lagadec said that “arguably for the first time the Allies HAVE made a hard commitment to reaching 2% (indeed, to reaching at least 2%) rather than merely ‘trying to get there if possible.’”

He noted, though, that even this stronger declaration “doesn’t provide a deadline” to hit 2%. Regardless, it will not create actual debts to the US or NATO.

NATO members’ spending before Trump took office

As president, Trump claimed that NATO members’ spending had declined “every single year” until he took office in 2017. He sometimes claimed there had been 15, 16 or 18 years of declines.

Facts First: Trump’s claims that NATO members’ spending had declined every year until he took office are false. Official NATO data show that non-US members’ defense spending increased in each of the two years prior to Trump’s presidency – by 1.6% in 2015 and 3.0% in 2016. The increases came after NATO members recommitted to the 2%-of-GDP guideline at the 2014 summit in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Non-US members’ defense spending increases in each year of the Trump era were bigger than their increases in 2015 and 2016 – the increases were 5.9% in 2017, 4.3% in 2018, 3.6% in 2019 and 4.6% in 2020 – and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gave Trump at least partial credit. But Trump is wrong when he claims he reversed a downward trend.

“If you look at the year-on-year data, the turning point away from the nadir of European defense spending happened in 2014, pre-Trump, and clearly due to Crimea,” Lagadec said.

Saideman said that while it’s possible he is undervaluing Trump’s impact because he generally dislikes Trump, “Putin deserves most of the credit for defense spending increases in Europe.” He said, “Everyone was cutting their defense budgets after the 2008 economic crisis and as countries started pulling out of Afghanistan, and all that changed with the seizure of Crimea.” And he argued that any increases sparked by Trump are likely less about his efforts to cajole allies than about those allies’ concerns about the US no longer keeping its commitments given what has sounded from Trump like “genuine hostility to the alliance and to the allies.”

Under President Joe Biden, non-US NATO members increased their defense spending by 2.8% in 2021 and an estimated 2.0% in 2022, then by an estimated 8.3% in 2023.
That large 2023 spike was “clearly in reaction to the full-fledged invasion of Ukraine” in 2022, Lagadec said.

The US share of NATO spending

As president, Trump repeatedly claimed that, before him, the US was “paying for 100% of NATO” or “paying close to 100%.”

Facts First: Trump’s claims are false. Official NATO figures show that in 2016, the last year before Trump took office, US defense spending made up about 71% of total defense spending by NATO members – a large majority, but not “100%” or “close to 100%.” And Trump’s claim is even more inaccurate if he was talking about the direct contributions to NATO that cover NATO’s organizational expenses and are set based on each country’s national income; the US was responsible for about 22% of those contributions in 2016.  

The US share of total NATO military spending fell to about 68% in 2023. And the US is now responsible for about 16% of direct contributions to NATO, the same as Germany; Lagadec said the US share was reduced from 22% “to placate Trump” and is a “sweetheart deal” given that the US makes up more than half of the alliance’s total GDP.

What previous presidents told NATO members

As president, Trump repeatedly claimed that before he pressured NATO members to increase their defense spending, US presidents did not even ask them to do so. He singled out former President Barack Obama in his comments at the rally on Saturday. After referring to NATO members Trump said he pressured himself, he continued: “And then I hear that they like Obama better. They should like Obama better.
You know why? Because he didn’t ask for anything.”

Facts First: Trump’s claims are false. Both Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush, repeatedly pressed other NATO members to spend more on defense, though their public language was less confrontational than Trump’s.

At a news conference in Belgium in 2014, Obama said, “If we’ve got collective defense, it means that everybody has got to chip in. And I have had some concerns about a diminished level of defense spending among some of our partners in NATO – not all, but many. The trend lines have been going down.” In a speech in Germany in 2016, Obama said, “Every NATO member should be contributing its full share – 2% of GDP – towards our common security, something that doesn’t always happen. And I’ll be honest, sometimes Europe has been complacent about its own defense.” In a speech to Canada’s Parliament in 2016, he said, “As your ally and as your friend, let me say that we’ll be more secure when every NATO member, including Canada, contributes its full share to our common security.”

In a speech in the Czech Republic in 2002, before a NATO summit, Bush said that every NATO member needs to make a military contribution to the alliance, and “for some allies, this will require higher defense spending.” Bush and top administration officials continued for the rest of his presidency to push for increased spending. While visiting Romania in 2008, Bush said, “Building a strong NATO alliance also requires a strong European defense capacity. So at this summit, I will encourage our European partners to increase their defense investments to support both NATO and EU operations.”

The cost of NATO’s headquarters 

While criticizing NATO both during and after his presidency, Trump has claimed that NATO spent $3 billion on its headquarters building in Belgium.

Facts First: Trump’s $3 billion figure is not close to accurate. NATO told CNN in 2020 that the headquarters building was constructed for a sum under the approved budget of 1.178 billion euro, or about $1.27 billion at Monday exchange rates – certainly an expensive facility, but less than half what Trump has claimed.

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