22.02 Review

Who is Undermining NATO? The future of the alliance depends more on the positions of Germany and France than on Donald Trump

European politicians and experts are outraged by Donald Trump's statement that he is not going to help NATO members who do not contribute sufficiently to its funding. However, in essence, Trump is right. After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, NATO European countries increased military spending by 10.5%, but only nine out of the 31 alliance countries, in addition to the United States and the United Kingdom, meet the 2% of GDP defence spending requirement set by its rules. The countries in Eastern Europe, which see a direct threat from Russia, have predictably increased their spending the most in recent years. Of the two largest EU economies, France is relatively close to the NATO minimum for military spending, while Germany spends just over 1.5% of GDP on defence, compared to the 3.5% of GDP spent by the United States. European politicians and their voters would still like to avoid the costs of the new geopolitical reality, making discussions about Europe increasing its military capabilities to avoid dependence on the US for security unrealistic. Adding to this the fact that Europeans are not eager to support the US in their likely confrontation with China, it becomes clear why Trump's anti-European escapades resonate with American voters, bringing him closer to a second term in the White House.

As usual, Donald Trump's boorish statement that he will not provide aid to European countries that do not make a sufficient contribution to the alliance's funding has sparked a scandal. European security experts rightly point out that the credibility of promises, including and primarily regarding the famous Article 5 of the founding NATO North Atlantic Treaty, stating that an attack on one of the alliance countries is considered an attack on all of its countries, is its main weapon. However, in essence, Trump is correct. Europe has effectively outsourced defence matters to the US. For many years, this did not cause conflicts because the US effectively invested military spending in its own global leadership. However, the 'Russian threat' and the prospect of the militarisation of the Russian economy against the backdrop of the task of containment facing the US in other regions (primarily in the Pacific and the Middle East) require a decisive change in the situation. Trump's specific manner allows him to address the American voter directly, while accusing the political establishment of hypocrisy, and the fact that Trump is right in essence only reinforces the effect of this technique.

In fairness, it should be noted that almost all NATO countries have increased defence spending over the past 10 years. After the start of the war, spending increased by 2% in 2022 and by 8.3% in 2023, according to statistics published by the alliance. But this is clearly not in line with the current situation. The countries in Eastern Europe, which are located near to Russia, are the most forced to increase spending. The most notable jump in defence spending was in Poland: from 1.9% of GDP in 2014, to 3.9% in 2023, making it the leader in defence spending relative to GDP among the 31 alliance countries, according to NATO itself. The level of defence spending in the Baltic countries also increased noticeably (in Latvia from 0.94% to 2.27%, in Lithuania from 0.88% to 2.54%, in Estonia from 1.93% to 2.73%). Significant increases in expenses also occurred in Romania (from 1.35% to 2.44%), Finland (from 1.45% to 2.45%), Slovakia (from 0.98% to 2.03%), and Greece (from 2.22% to 3.01%).

In addition to the above-mentioned countries, the US (3.49%) and the UK (2.07%) reach the level of defence spending of 2% of GDP set at the NATO Summit in 2014, and have both seen a slight decrease over the past 10 years. Out of the 31 NATO countries, only 11 have achieved the financial goal set a decade ago. Over the decade, North Macedonia also significantly increased defence spending (from 1.09% to 1.87%), along with the Netherlands (from 1.15% to 1.7%) and the Czech Republic (from 0.94% to 1.5%). However, almost all the major alliance countries — France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Canada — have been in no rush to reach the agreed-upon threshold. The funding of NATO's largest army in Europe (Turkey) has slightly decreased over the past 10 years—to 1.31%.

Thanks to the increased defence spending by most European countries and the inclusion of Finland in the alliance, NATO now accounts for about half of all global military expenditures. The United States still possesses the largest defence budget in the world: in 2022, it was nearly $877 billion, triple the spending of China, the second on the list ($292 billion), and ten times the spending of the third-ranked country, Russia (around $86 billion). The latter's defence capabilities, in terms of current funding, are at about the same level as those of India ($81bn) and Saudi Arabia ($75 billion). However, Russia has military and nuclear capabilities inherited from the Soviet Union on its side. The next tier includes major European countries: the UK ($68bn), Germany ($56 billion) and France ($53 billion). However, while France is relatively close to the NATO threshold (1.9% of GDP), Germany, as the leading economy in Europe, is clearly lagging behind with 1.57%.

However, the current level of defence spending by European countries is clearly insufficient, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The war in Ukraine has unmistakably exposed the fact that Europe's military production capabilities have significantly atrophied due to years of underfunding, rendering it incapable of conducting a modern conventional war that requires a vast amount of equipment and ammunition.

As noted by The Washington Post, during the Munich Security Conference in February, European politicians and experts discussed the possibility of creating a continental supplement to NATO that would function even if the US withdraws its security guarantees. In fact, however, this plan would require far more resources than are needed to fulfil European countries' commitments to the US and NATO. In addition, the implementation of such a plan will require the harmonisation of commitments within Europe, whose largest countries — France and Germany — are in a state of ongoing disagreement on security issues, as highlighted by Politico.

Thus, French President Emmanuel Macron publicly criticised the German-led project for the Sky Shield missile defence system for Europe. Paris wants the necessary components for its implementation to be procured in Europe, while Berlin intends to use American Patriot systems and the Israeli hypersonic missile defence system Arrow 3. Collaboration between Germany and France in joint projects for the next-generation fighter (FCAS) and the next-generation combat tank (MGCS) has stalled. In light of the successful performance of Leopard 2 tanks on the battlefield in Ukraine, Berlin has lost interest in creating a new tank, while for Paris, which no longer produces Leclerc tanks, this project remains important.

Joint arms projects are also hampered by the two countries' disagreement over export policy: Germany has proposed the harmonisation of arms export rules at the EU level, which France categorically refuses to do. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), from 2018 to 2022, France was the second-largest exporter of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, while Germany, until recently, refused to supply Eurofighter aircraft to Riyadh due to human rights concerns in the kingdom. Germany has also reproached France for providing insufficient military aid to Ukraine: according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Berlin has so far provided €17.7 billion in military aid to Kyiv, while Paris has provided €635 million. France argues that, unlike Germany, it supplies Ukraine with weapons that ‘are game changers’ on the battlefield, including long-range cruise missiles like the SCALP-EG.

Amid bilateral disagreements, Paris and Berlin have begun talks with Poland on reviving a trilateral political-military alliance (the Weimar Triangle). But regardless of the prospects of this format, Germany is faced with the need to increase its own defence spending. As The Financial Times has noted, in 2024, Germany will spend nearly €72 billion on these purposes, the highest amount in the history of the Bundeswehr. Approximately €52 billion will come from the budget, and an additional €19.8 billion will be sourced from the investment fund created at the initiative of Chancellor Olaf Scholz. However, according to calculations, this €100 billion fund will be depleted by 2027, after which Germany will have to allocate an additional €25–30 billion annually from the budget to maintain defence funding at a level of no less than 2% of GDP. According to experts, this will require cuts to social spending.

Indeed, the fate of the alliance has never looked as uncertain as it does today. But it is not only Donald Trump who is to blame for this. Politicians and voters in Europe are reluctant to bear the costs associated with the new geopolitical reality. They are also unwilling to support US military and political tasks beyond Europe. According to a recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), only 23% of Europeans would be willing to support the US in the event of a conflict with China over Taiwan, while 62% believe Europe should remain neutral. It is these realities that make Trump's invectives against the alliance so popular and are propelling Trump towards the presidency.