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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


We've been here before. On Saturday, at a campaign rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump bemoaned NATO allies for what he sees as their inadequate defence spending. It's an idée fixe of his. More alarming is that he uses it as an entry point for questioning the alliance as a whole. Readers may recall his January 2017 remark – he was president-elect at the time – that NATO was 'obsolete'.

At Saturday's rally he said that the United States, under him, would not come to the aid of NATO allies who did not 'pay their bills' and that he would 'encourage [Russia] to do what the hell they want.' He effectively encouraged Russia to attack America's allies. For many listeners, the man who could soon return to the American presidency is doing Vladimir Putin's bidding.

In this blog, I briefly assess Trump's claim that allies free-ride on US defence spending. I conclude by arguing two things. First of all that, while allies defence spending is rightly criticised, it is a mistake to claim that is in any way comparable to Trump's outburst in terms of the damage it causes to NATO (as some have claimed). Secondly, I argue that, while Trump's reckless comments damage America's security as much as Europe's, they are not necessarily of service to Putin. Tomorrow's blog, a complement to this one, discusses the Tucker Carlson interview with Putin. A third part returns to Trump, recalling some of his past rhetoric on Putin and the prospects of a second Trump presidency for US–Russia relations.

Both Trump and Carlson appear to accept many of Putin's claims about Ukraine and for this reason many see them as 'useful idiots', a label with its provenance in the Cold War. It's unkind to call someone an 'idiot' (even if they, as Trump, routinely resort to more vulgar language) but it makes for a good blog title, so forgive me. Trump's comments come a few days before the Munich Security Conference, perhaps the most significant large annual gathering focused on international security. Europeans' faith in the United States' commitment to its allies will inevitably be a talking point in Bavaria.

The campaign rally: NATO free-riders?

Trump's 2017 comment that NATO was 'obsolete' stemmed from his gripe that only five members were spending at least 2% of their GDP on defence, which was a commitment alliance members had agreed to in 2006. Those five were the United States, Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Poland. The situation today is better but hardly great. NATO data for 2023 show that eleven members met the 2% pledge; that leaves nineteen members falling short. Some illustrative cases are given below (full data in the embedded links):

2016 defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP (NATO estimate)

2023 defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP (NATO estimate)

United States



























United Kingdom



Defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP has risen in the states on the 'front line' with Russia. Estonia, which already met the 2% agreed minimum, has upped its spending on defence. Poland has done so even more significantly. Even states farther away, such as Spain or France, have moved closer to 2%. While Trump and his supporters would claim credit for the improved spending, a more plausible explanation is members' reaction to Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine. The most plausible reason for historically low spending is that states felt more secure in the past than they do today.

NATO defines defence expenditure as costs incurred by a member 'to meet the needs of its armed forces or those of its allies.' It includes spending on equipment, research and development, and personnel costs (including pensions). The United States, whose military has global reach, spends a lot on defence that may not really be of any help to its NATO allies. The spending of the UK and France, with nuclear weapons, will look very different to the spending of Estonia or Lithuania. Yet the smaller members' spending is all relevant to NATO's collective defence; it is their very vulnerability which means they cannot afford to free-ride; it is why Latvia has just reintroduced conscription.

Given the ups and downs of economic performance, and the nature of budgeting, any smaller state barely meeting the pledge risks missing it. A booming economy might mean an expected 3% defence spending one year inadvertently becomes 1.9% because of economic growth (which makes proposals like this one problematic). NATO members have invested in defence in earnest: Lithuania's defence spending increased from €300m in 2014 to nearly €2bn in 2023; by definition there is nothing 'free' about its own defence provisions! The only NATO member that, arguably, gets anything for 'free' is Iceland since it doesn't have a military.

NATO allies could do better, but the free-riding accusation is political rhetoric: it is not about military necessity, nor is it mere bluster. Trump's tirades about NATO probably will lead to European members upping their spending and that is good for the United States. People will talk about Europe's 'strategic autonomy' (remember that Emmanuel Macron called NATO 'brain dead' during the last Trump presidency) – but will implicitly realise they depend greatly on US support and remain committed to NATO.

Undermining Article 5: Comparing apples and oranges

Trump's comments severely undermined Article 5 of NATO's Treaty. The collective defence clause says that 'an armed attack against one or more [member]... shall be considered an attack against them all.' It pledges the allies to respond collectively. That does not necessarily mean militarily, but it's the strongest assurance members have and the US, by far the most powerful member, is the lynchpin of collective defence.

Trump publicly said he would not support allies, contradicting the United States' treaty commitment. Some were too quick to endorse his view that NATO members are free-riding on American defence spending, which as I've shown is an exaggeration, and further suggested that these members themselves undermined Article 5. Sky News's security and defence editor wrote that 'each NATO ally that fails to spend 2% is just as culpable of undermining the deterrent effect of Article 5'. That's a pretty big claim to say the two things are comparable. (I should say that I think Deborah Haynes is a first rate reporter, but on this she is wrong.)

To claim that members not meeting the 2% pledge are 'just as culpable' misses the point. Member states should be called out for not meeting the 2% agreement. And 2% – an agreed minimum, note – feels insufficient in the current situation (notwithstanding security dilemma theory). Not meeting the spending commitment certainly weakens NATO's potential defence capabilities, but it does not contradict the commitment; to conflate the two is to draw a false equivalence.

The US gains where Russia may not

What Trump evidently also fails to grasp is that the US benefits from having allies. It is the only NATO member to have invoked Article 5, which it did after 9/11. The allies agreed that the terrorist attacks were covered by the article and made provisions to support the United States as it began its War on Terror. More importantly, the United States enjoys global reach for its military because many states are willing to host its forces and equipment. Poland wants to host US troops and munitions; during the last Trump presidency it lobbied for the US to establish a permanent military presence on its soil (jocularly dubbed 'Fort Trump').

I would also question whether Trump's comments are useful to Russia. Putin, one presumes, would like to see NATO members spending less on defence whereas the opposite may well happen. So there is hope that Trump's antics will not help Putin in the end and will strengthen NATO (which I don't think is Trump's intention; he doesn't seem to much care for NATO). But I may be clutching at straws.

Putin may not be as excited about the prospect of Trump as people think. In his interview with Tucker Carlson he mentioned Trump only once. Asked if a new US administration could improve relations, Putin told Carlson, 'It's not about the leader, it's about the sentiment of the [US] elite.'

Thank you for reading! You can support my blog by buying a copy of my book Belarus in Crisis: From Domestic Unrest to the Russia–Ukraine War. Available to UK buyers here and US buyers here.

Image credit: DVIDSHUB. Public domain; tinted by me.

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