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Fact-checking Trump comments on ‘delinquent’ NATO countries

Countries don’t owe money to anyone if they spend less on their own defense

Former President Donald Trump has mischaracterized what he calls "delinquent" payments by countries in NATO.
Former President Donald Trump has mischaracterized what he calls "delinquent" payments by countries in NATO. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At a rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump said that when he was president, he told the leader of a large NATO country that if the country was “delinquent” in its payments to NATO and Russia attacked it, “I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”

Trump’s comments drew condemnation from the White HouseEuropean leaders, the NATO chief and some Republicans.

As he did in the Feb. 10 rally, Trump has long mischaracterized what he calls “delinquent” payments from alliance members to NATO. Although NATO countries pay direct costs for NATO’s common fund based on a formula, Trump is referring to the indirect costs countries pay toward their own defense in general. Countries don’t owe money to anyone else if they spend less on defense than other member countries.

“That’s not how NATO works,” James Goldgeier, a former dean of the School of International Service at American University who currently teaches at the university and sits on the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board, told us in an email. “There is a common budget that countries pay into, but most of what we think of as NATO defense spending refers to individual country defense spending and preparedness to be able to operate as a military alliance.”

In 2006, NATO countries made a commitment to aim to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their own defense. A NATO spokesman at the time said: “Let me be clear, this is not a hard commitment that they will do it. But it is a commitment to work towards it. And that will be a first within the Alliance.”

A 2014 NATO declaration after a summit in Wales again said that countries that weren’t meeting the 2 percent goal would “aim to move towards the 2 percent guideline within a decade.”

According to NATO, 11 countries, including the U.S., are spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on their defense. Nineteen other countries do not meet that threshold, but with the exception of Croatia and Turkey, all are estimated to be spending more on defense as a percentage of their GDP in 2023 than they did in 2014. According to the NATO report, it was estimated the U.S. would spend 3.49 percent of its GDP on defense in 2023, second only to Poland, at 3.9 percent.

Alliance members also pay money for NATO’s commonly funded budget. That’s a direct cost. The U.S. currently pays about 16.2 percent — the same as Germany — of NATO’s “principal budgets” that are funded by all alliance members based on a cost-sharing formula that factors in the gross national income of each country. The principal budget categories include the civil budget, the military budget and the NATO Security Investment Programme. But, again, when Trump is referring to NATO spending, he is referring to the indirect costs each country spends on its defense.

In his speech in South Carolina, Trump made several misleading statements.

“NATO was busted until I came along,” Trump said. “I said everybody’s going to pay. They said, ‘Well, if we don’t pay, are you still going to protect us?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ They couldn’t believe the answer. And everybody, you never saw more money pour in.

“One of the presidents of a big country stood up said, ‘Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia will you protect us?’” Trump said. “I said, ‘You didn’t pay, you’re delinquent?’ He said, ‘Yes. Let’s say that happened.’ No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills. And the money came flowing in.

“And that’s why they have money today, because of what I did,” Trump said. “And then I hear that they like Obama better. They should like Obama better. You know why? Because he didn’t ask for anything. We were like the stupid country of the world, and we’re not going to be the stupid country of the world any longer.”

Trump’s comment that the U.S. would not defend a NATO ally attacked by Russia, and that he would “encourage” the attack, is a rejection of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in 1949, in which NATO alliance members “agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” According to the treaty, NATO countries “will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

It’s also not true that NATO was “busted” until Trump stepped in — even in terms of indirect spending by countries on defense, that was going up before Trump took office. As factcheck.org has written, after years of decreases, combined defense spending by non-U.S. NATO members has increased every year since 2015 — two years before Trump assumed office. Combined NATO defense spending increased about 11.5 percent between 2016, the year before Trump took office, and 2020, Trump’s last year in office, according to NATO. The amount paid by NATO members other than the U.S. increased by about 19.8 percent over the same period.

Meanwhile, U.S. defense spending as a percentage of overall NATO spending declined from 71 percent in 2016 to 69 percent in 2020.

Trump was also wrong when he claimed former President Barack Obama “didn’t ask for anything.” Obama and his top aides repeatedly pressured NATO countries to increase their military spending, but it wasn’t until Russia in early 2014 invaded and took control of Crimea in Ukraine that the member countries agreed to take action.

In 2010, while countries around the world were recovering from a recession, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed concern about NATO members cutting back on military spending for their active-duty forces and further shifting the burden of NATO’s collective defense onto the U.S. By 2011, Gates was warning of a “dim, if not dismal future” for NATO if member countries did not “halt and reverse” the decline in defense spending.

After Russia invaded Crimea, Obama gave several speeches urging NATO countries to increase their defense spending, leading up to a September 2014 agreement in which each country agreed to increase their military spending over the next decade toward a 2 percent goal.

  • Obama, March 26, 2014, in Belgium: “But one of the things that I’ve also said in the past, and will repeat again, and I think [then-NATO] Secretary General [Anders Fogh] Rasmussen agrees with me here, is that if we’ve got collective defense, it means that everybody’s got to chip in. And I have had some concerns about a diminished level of defense spending among some of our partners in NATO; not all, but many. The trend lines have been going down. … So one of the things that I think, medium and long term, we’ll have to examine is whether everybody is chipping in. And this can’t just be a U.S. exercise or a British exercise or one country’s efforts; everybody’s going to have to make sure that they are engaged and involved.”
  • Obama, June 3, 2014, in Poland“A number of [Central and Eastern European] countries represented here have already committed to increasing their investments in our collective defense, and today we’ll be discussing additional steps that we can take both as individual nations and as an alliance to make sure we have the capabilities that we need.”
  • Obama, Sept. 3, 2014, in Estonia: “For I think a certain period of time there was a complacency here in Europe about the demands that were required to make sure that NATO was able to function effectively. My former secretary of defense I think came here and gave some fairly sharp speeches repeatedly about the need for making certain that every NATO member was doing its fair share.”

On Sept. 5, 2014, Obama announced at a NATO summit in Wales that the leaders of the NATO countries had agreed to a series of steps to strengthen the organization’s collective defense, including a “move toward investing 2 percent of their GDP in our collective security.”

“Fourth, all 28 NATO nations have pledged to increase their investments in defense and to move toward investing 2 percent of their GDP in our collective security,” Obama said. “These resources will help NATO invest in critical capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and missile defense. And this commitment makes clear that NATO will not be complacent. Our Alliance will reverse the decline in defense spending and rise to meet the challenges that we face in the 21st century.”

Goldgeier told factcheck.org that every American president since Dwight Eisenhower has “urged Europeans to do more,” including Obama.

“The September [2014] Wales summit did see NATO members put forward an aspiration of spending at least 2 percent on defense. Many countries did start spending more,” Goldgeier said. “During the Trump presidency, the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, was also helpful in getting NATO members to spend more on defense by urging Europeans to do more. The most important person since 2014 for getting NATO members to spend more on defense has been Vladimir Putin. He poses a clear threat to Europe, and NATO members have responded.”

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