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Trump’s Complaints About NATO Defense Spending Don’t Add Up

July 12, 2018, 1:40 PM UTC

President Trump is already drawing headlines for his gaffes at this week’s NATO conference. But perhaps worse is his bold—but more mainstream—demand that NATO countries meet an arbitrary military spending goal. The president wants NATO countries to spend 4% of their GDP on their militaries.

In fairness, Trump didn’t dream up this daffy idea himself: Spending at least 2% of a country’s GDP on its military has been an official NATO goal since 2006, and Trump’s not the first to suggest doubling that amount. The U.S. currently funds its military to the tune of about 3.5% of its GDP, compared to only 2.3% for the next highest country by this measure: Greece.

But the idea that our military budget should be tied to the size of our economy is goosey: It’s saying that we need more soldiers to protect more dollars, as if our troops must physically surround an ever-expanding pile of gold bars, instead of a nation with fixed square mileage.

The president has fully embraced this arbitrary and senseless part of the plan without any intention of following through on the underlying rationale: to spread the burden of security so that no country is left holding the bag alone.

If U.S. interests are truly Trump’s concern, the real reason to want European NATO members to pay more for their militaries would be so that the U.S. could pay less, thereby leaving more resources for other things. Trump even seems to grasp this logic, at least in part.

But spending less on the military is the furthest thing from the president’s mind. He requested, and got, an $80 billion increase for the military, and his budget projections keep the military humming along at this historically high spending level through at least 2023.

At $700 billion this year, military spending is more than half of the trillion-dollar budget that Congress allocates each year, and that doesn’t even include spending on veterans’ health and benefits. Our current military budget is more than the peak spending during the Vietnam or Korean wars. The U.S. spends more than any other country in the world—twice as much as Russia and China combined.

If what we’re spending isn’t enough, we must be doing it wrong.

With a military budget like that, no wonder the common refrain from the right is that we can’t afford nice things like universal health care, childcare, or affordable higher education. Those things happen to be common in the European countries where military spending is, in fact, lower.

Of course, we don’t need Europe to spend more to justify spending less on our military. There’s already plenty to cut without compromising national security. A Department of Defense study found $125 billion in wasteful bureaucratic spending in the Pentagon—and was quietly buried until reporters at The Washington Post dug it up.

The solution is simple: Military spending should be determined not by arbitrary spending rules, but by security needs. The Pentagon should be held accountable for waste like the $125 billion the Post reported. Political leaders of both parties should be held accountable for allowing endless war in Afghanistan and Iraq that has cost our nation $5.6 trillion without any clear security benefits (and likely to our detriment, as chaos provides grounds for the formation of new terrorist groups).


We don’t have to wait for other nations. We can cut wasteful military spending as soon as elected leaders can find the gumption to stand up to military contractors like Lockheed Martin (LMT), Boeing (BA), and Raytheon (RTN), which, in total, rake in over $300 billion a year in government contracts.

A 2012 study by national security experts at the Center for American Progress and the Institute for Policy Studies found that the military budget could safely be reduced by $440 billion over 10 years without compromising national security, through measures like cutting showy but ineffectual weapons systems and reducing the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. maintains. With the military budget even higher today than it was then, there are likely even greater efficiencies to be found.

That money could be reinvested the way the Europeans do it: in health care for all, subsidized childcare, free higher education, and other things that would make Americans’ lives better. Trump can blame a NATO spending rule for all this, but the real failure lies closer to home—with his own preference for military showmanship over bread and butter programs that are already par for the course in Europe.

Lindsay Koshgarian directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.