Former United States President Donald Trump has stirred strong reactions in Europe after saying Washington might not protect NATO allies from potential attack from Russia if he wins the November election unless some members of the alliance step up their military spending.
Speaking at a campaign rally on Saturday in South Carolina, the Republican Party’s presidential frontrunner said he told an unnamed leader of a “big country” that is part of NATO that he would “encourage them [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want” with nations that don’t spend sufficiently on defence.
NATO, which was formed during the Cold War, consists of 31 nations, all of them in Europe except for the US and Canada. Under Article 5 of the treaty that created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an attack on one member prompts a response from all.
Trump has made similar comments about military spending by other NATO members previously, including when he was president, saying the US unfairly shoulders the alliance’s defence burden.
But while the real estate developer-turned-politician’s rhetoric about the alliance remains unchanged, the spending by NATO members is different from what they were when Trump was in office.
A key reason: Russia’s war on Ukraine and the increased threat perception in Europe.
How much are NATO members spending on defence?
NATO defence spending declined sharply after the Cold War – from 4.1 percent of combined gross domestic product (GDP) in 1990 to 2.6 percent in 2000 – even as the group expanded. To boost funding, members agreed at a 2014 summit in Wales to contribute at least 2 percent of their GDPs to the alliance by 2024.
By 2017, when Trump was sworn in as US president, only four countries met that threshold: the US, Greece, the United Kingdom and Poland. Trump’s argument since then has been that the US needs to pressure allies to expand their military budgets.
Seven years later, NATO military spending has changed significantly, even though most members still do not commit 2 percent of their GDPs to defence.
By 2022, the number of NATO nations meeting that bar had reached eight — the US, UK, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Croatia.
Then, as the war in Ukraine continued and fears over Russia’s expansionist ambitions mounted, more European members increased their military budgets. The number rose to 11 in 2023 with Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and new NATO entrant Finland all spending more than 2 percent while Croatia tipped under the threshold.
Luxembourg (0.7 percent) spends the least in relation to its GDP. Belgium (1.1 percent), Turkey (1.3 percent), Spain (1.3 percent), Slovenia (1.4 percent) and Canada (1.4 percent) are other member nations at the bottom of the spending pile.
Yet even as more NATO members have increased their spending, the alliance’s dependence on the size and strength of the US military has only grown.
The US, whose military forms the core of the alliance, has consistently spent more than all other members combined. In 1990, the US accounted for 61 percent of the alliance’s defence spending. By 2020, the US share had increased to 70 percent.
How has the Ukraine war affected NATO spending?
Several NATO members announced intentions to increase their defence budgets and meet the 2 percent target after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. France promised to meet the threshold in 2025, Italy in 2028, Spain in 2029 and Belgium in 2035.
In December, the alliance announced a 2.03-billion-euro ($2.4bn) military budget for 2024, a 12 percent increase from 2023.
According to the White House, the US has provided wartime Ukraine with more financial aid than any other country, amounting to $44bn since 2022.
Experts said NATO is still falling short of its target on individual member’s military spending and the budgets of Western European countries farther away from Russia, like Germany, have been some of the slowest to rise.
From 2021 to 2023, Berlin increased its spending as a percentage of GDP by 0.1 percent. Ukraine’s neighbour Poland, on the other hand, has almost doubled its spending during that time.
How might a second Trump presidency affect US-NATO relations?
Trump’s latest comments have sparked concerns within the alliance over the potential for disruptions within NATO if he returns to power.
“Any hint that allies will not defend themselves undermines all our security, including the United States, and exposes US soldiers and European soldiers to an increased risk,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. The alliance has a combined 3.3 million military personnel.
Trump has had a rocky history with NATO for years, especially when he was president.
In 2019, Trump told reporters that he withheld nearly $400m in Congress-approved funding to Ukraine because other NATO members had not contributed their bit.
“I’d withhold again, and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine because they’re not doing it,” Trump said at the time. “Why is it only the United States putting up the money? Germany, France and other countries should put up money.”
Although not a NATO member, Kyiv has been pushing to join the alliance for years, and NATO has in turn stated that the country’s protection is a key priority. NATO had 12 members when it was formed in 1949, and analysts have pointed out that the alliance’s expansion to former Soviet Union countries has threatened Russia’s influence and angered Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Moscow has said its neighbour Ukraine joining NATO would be a step too far. After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, NATO ramped up aid to Ukraine. The alliance has also increased funds to Kyiv since Russia launched an all-out war in 2022.
Fellow Republicans have denounced Trump’s comments on Saturday. Former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Trump’s lone remaining challenger for the Republican presidential nomination, told reporters that the last thing the US wants to do is “side with Russia”.
“Don’t take the side of someone who has gone and invaded a country and half a million people have died or been wounded,” she said, referring to Putin.