Trump may score symbolic victory in long fight with Germany over NATO spending
By ANNE GEARAN AND MICHAEL BIRNBAUM | The Washington Post | Published: September 3, 2019
President Donald Trump may soon win a largely symbolic victory in his effort to squeeze larger NATO contributions from Germany, under a compromise plan that would slightly increase what Germany pays toward administering the military alliance while lowering the U.S. bill, diplomats and other officials familiar with the proposal said Tuesday.
At issue are the relatively small amounts alliance members contribute toward the administration of the alliance, which is separate from defense spending and a drop in the bucket of overall alliance outlays. But as Trump continues to complain about what he calls meager funding from Germany, the largest economy in Europe and the host country for major U.S. defense installations, even a tiny increase in German payments can be notched as his doing.
The money goes toward paying for NATO employees, keeping the lights on in NATO offices around the world and funding the small number of military assets under NATO's command. The 2019 total for what is known as NATO's common funding is $2.6 billion. The collective defense spending of NATO's 29 members, by comparison, is estimated to be $1.04 trillion.
The White House did not confirm details of the proposal, which was unveiled formally Tuesday at a weekly meeting of NATO ambassadors in Brussels.
"The United States has consistently called for and supported efforts to enhance burden sharing, which have resulted in over $100 billion in total new defense spending since 2016," a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because consultations among the NATO ambassadors are confidential. "We also support NATO Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg's proposal to adjust the way NATO allies' common funding contributions are calculated. We appreciate the work his office has put into developing this plan."
The German foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Under the U.S.-backed proposal, U.S. contributions toward what is known as NATO's common funding would drop from 22.1 percent of the total to 15.9 percent, beginning in 2021, officials said.
Germany would increase its share from 14.8 percent to 15.9 percent, matching the U.S. share, and allowing both nations to point to a small area of agreement.
For Germany, the tiny increase in administrative funding for NATO as a multilateral institution is likely to be more politically palatable than big increases in overall defense spending, said Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
"It is a natural fit for Germany to increase its contribution to NATO common funding as an expression of Germany's international security objectives and the priority it places on sustaining the NATO alliance," said Rathke, a former U.S. diplomat.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has presided over increases in German defense spending since 2014, despite domestic political opposition to increases that some of Merkel's opponents say should be spent on social services and other domestic priorities.
German defense spending is expected to reach $54 billion this year, but the country still lags well behind a pledge among NATO nations to spend 2 percent of their individual gross national products on defense.
"This was long discussed and was a proposal that came from the German side to get us off the hook for the funding increase," said Karl-Heinz Kamp, president of the German government's Federal Academy for Security Policy. The idea was to "show we are doing something in a demonstrative way that doesn't cost that much," he said, describing it as a "political" move.
Germany devoted 1.36 percent of its annual economic output, or GDP, toward defense this year, far short of the 2 percent spending goal. Merkel said last month that her country would reach 1.5 percent by 2024, the deadline that NATO leaders set to get to 2 percent. Germany would need to spend about $23 billion a year more on defense to meet its pledges.
Trump and Merkel held what both described as a productive meeting last month at the Group of Seven summit in France, and although Trump said they had discussed defense, he skipped a chance to take Merkel to task in front of news cameras.
But as recently as June, Trump had complained bitterly about German defense spending and NATO participation, falsely telling Fox Business Network that "we pay for close to 100 percent of NATO."
"We pay for close to that because Germany doesn't pay what they're supposed to pay," Trump said, noting that only seven nations in the 29-member alliance meet their 2 percent commitment. "I got them to pay last year $100 billion more," Trump said.
"Germany's taking tremendous advantage," Trump added.
Alliance members increased defense spending in 2018 for the fourth year in a row, highlighting a slow turnaround amid White House criticism.
The U.S. military is the juggernaut of the alliance, comprising 69 percent of overall defense spending, even though the U.S. economy forms less than half of the club's economic might.
Some shifts in NATO common funding have been discussed for months, but the proposal sparked immediate frustration from France and Britain. Those nations, which may be asked to help make up the shortfall from the U.S. reduction, argued that the change would do little to address the broader issue of lagging defense spending in Europe, according to two diplomats familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a touchy alliance subject.
NATO uses the size of countries' economies to divvy up responsibility for paying into the common budget. But it sets a maximum cap on the contribution, meaning that the current U.S. share of the bill, about $576 million, is actually disproportionately low compared to other countries because the U.S. economy is so much larger than that of other NATO members. The proposed change would save U.S. taxpayers about $163 million.
"This is not what burden-sharing means," said one of the diplomats, who said that what Germany needed to do was speed up its defense spending increases, which would result in billions of dollars toward collective defense. The current proposal, the diplomat said, is "playing with the figures."
The discussion is expected to continue into the fall. If an agreement is reached, it would probably be announced at a December summit of NATO leaders in London.
A NATO spokesman declined to comment on the substance of the discussions, saying that conversations at the gathering of ambassadors are classified.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. The Washington Post's Loveday Morris contributed from Berlin.