Are NATO allies really getting a 'free ride'? Here's what the numbers say

  • President Trump Thursday said NATO allies need to spend more on defense.
  • But spending levels are only one way to assess the defense burdens borne by each NATO member.
  • Many of NATO countries had already begun boosting defense spending before Trump took office.

Though he declared the alliance "obsolete" as a candidate, President Donald Trump on Thursday affirmed U.S. commitment to the defense of NATO allies.

But he repeated his longstanding lament that the member states rely too heavily on the U.S. military and should continue to boost military spending.

In his second trip to Europe as president, Trump's message was apparently intended to ease the concerns of U.S. allies after failing to endorse the principle of collective defense during his first trip in May.

In a Warsaw speech that cited Russia's "destabilizing activities" in the region, Trump assured European allies that the U.S. remained ready to stand with them in the event of an attack.

But that assurance came with a repeated plea to the other 27 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to spend more on defense.

"Words are easy, but actions are what matters. And for its own protection, Europe—and you know this, everybody knows this, everybody has to know this—Europe must do more."

Some European leaders are apparently coming around to the idea of spending more on defense. For years, the U.S. has far outspent its NATO allies. Last year, the U.S. spent more than the rest of NATO combined.

But following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO members agreed to gradually raise their spending to roughly 2 percent of their country's gross domestic product by 2024.

As a result, spending had already begun to pick up before Trump was elected last fall. After bottoming out in 2014 at a combined total of $883 billion, NATO defense spending is expected to reach $915 billion this year.

Still, most NATO members devote less than 2 percent of GDP to military budgets; only Greece, Estonia, Romania, Poland and the United Kingdom are expected to hit that target this year.

But the 2 percent level is only a guideline for individual countries to follow for their own defense. Only a tiny fraction of that amount goes to pay for joint NATO facilities and personnel. The rest represents spending on each country's troops, facilities and equipment.

The 2 percent target is only one way to assess the defense burdens borne by each NATO member. Norway, for example, spends just 1.6 percent of GDP on its military, roughly in the middle of the pack. But that represents more than $11,000 per person, second only to the U.S., which spends more than $15,000 per capita.

The 2 percent GDP target also overlooks how the money is spent. Lithuania, which also spends less than the 2 percent target, has the second highest number of troops per capita, after Greece —with about 8 military personnel per 100,000 population.

Regardless of how you measure NATO member contributions, it seems clear they will continue to rise.

Last month, Europe's chief executive appealed to EU governments to create a military alliance to better defend itself and enhance its power abroad.

Just days after unveiling a multi-billion euro plan to help fund European defense research, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told a conference in Prague that EU members needed to better integrate their military assets and defense industries.

"I see the tide turning," Juncker said, citing growing support in EU capitals for wider military cooperation.

"NATO can no longer be used as a convenient alibi to argue against greater European efforts," he said, adding that the U.S. is "no longer interested in guaranteeing Europe's security in our place."

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