For a supposedly great communicator and negotiator, Trump has great problems with English language, distracting and detracting from the political points he is trying to make, which are often correct.
For example, since during his campaign, he has been making frequent noises about America’s NATO allies not pulling their weight. In July last year he responded equivocally to a New York Times interviewer when asked if he would defend the Baltic states from Russian aggression:
TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.
NYT: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.
TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.
And yesterday, following his meeting with Germany’s Merkel, Trump twitted that “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defence it provides to Germany!” During their joint press conference he referred to “dues” and demanded that NATO allies pay back “vast sums of money from past years”.
Trump either doesn’t understand or can’t express properly – or is continuing to address his domestic, rather than international, audience in his traditional and intended Grade 6 level English – how the Atlantic alliance (or indeed any other alliance) works. NATO is not like a Trump golf course, where members have to pay monthly fees in exchange for access to the facilities. You can’t kick Bulgaria out because she’s three months behind, or confiscate Denmark’s clubs until she settles the bar tab. No member of NATO “owes” America or the alliance any money and can be refused military assistance if it doesn’t cough up – this much is true.
What is also true, is that historically the European allies have been defence free-riders, hiding under America’s giant nuclear umbrella. This was perhaps less so during the Cold War when defence budgets tended to be more robust all-around, but has been very clear for the past quarter of a century, when the Europeans (and the Canadians) decided to cash in the post-Cold War “peace dividend” and spend it instead on holidays from reality. The communist evil empire might not be there anymore as the main enemy, but history has not ended; perhaps Europe can sue Francis Fukuyama.
Should NATO members be spending more on their defence? Hell yeah. While there are no membership dues in the alliance, the members have some time ago agreed to a (voluntary) target of defence budgets being at least 2 per cent of their GDP as a fair way of everyone pulling their weight for the collective self-defence. But as the chart below shows, only five NATO members – the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece and Estonia – have been keeping their bargain –
all the other members are lagging behind (though some are doing more to catch up than others – seven Eastern European members have recently increased their defence spending by 5 per cent or more, Lithuania by almost 30 per cent).
Defence is not a paid service that the United States provides to the Europeans, neither is NATO a collective insurance scheme that requires a payment of regular fees as a condition of obtaining future benefit. But NATO members clearly need to spend more on their own defence forces. How to make them do so is the perennial problem of how to make free-riders in any context pay for a collective good. This is even more difficult in international rather than domestic context. As we contemplate this problem, and a problem it is, let us at least get the language straight first.