President Trump Confronts NATO Free Riders

Takes Germany to task for filling Russia’s coffers.

President Trump’s visit to Brussels for the two-day NATO summit got off to an intense start.  “It’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia where we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” President Trump said at the outset of a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday morning.  “We are protecting Germany, we are protecting France, we are protecting all of these countries and then numerous of the countries go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia where they are paying billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia. I think that is very inappropriate.” The president went on to characterize Germany as “a captive of Russia” because of its dependence on Russia to meet its energy needs. President Trump also repeated his oft-stated criticism that other NATO members were not paying their fair share for collective defense. “Many countries owe us,” the president said before attending the summit at NATO headquarters. “The United States is paying far too much and other countries are not paying enough… This has been going on for decades, for decades, it’s disproportionate and not fair to the taxpayers of the United States.”

German officials did not take President Trump’s barbs lightly

“We’re not captive, neither to Russia nor to the USA. We’re one of the guarantors of the free world, and that will remain the case,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters. He insisted that only the German Bundestag decides the level of German spending. That’s fine, but the U.S. Congress and U.S. president get to decide how much of U.S. taxpayers’ money should be used to support Germany’s defense. Unfortunately, however, the Democratic leaders in Congress chose to gratuitously bash the president while he is in Brussels representing the United States and its taxpayers. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a joint statement that President Trump’s remarks served as “another profoundly disturbing signal that the president is more loyal to President Putin than to our NATO allies.” They did not bother to explain how trying to enlist our NATO allies, especially Germany, to help squeeze Russia economically would be a boon to President Putin. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been facing political turmoil at home because of her past open-door migration policies, defended Germany’s contributions to collective defense and emphasized Germany’s sovereign right to make its own decisions in its national interest. “I myself have also experienced a part of Germany being controlled by the Soviet Union,” she said. “I am very glad that we are united today in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany and that we can therefore also make our own independent policies and make our own independent decisions.” Chancellor Merkel’s initial one-on-one meeting at the NATO summit with President Trump was not the kind of friendly encounter she was used to having with Obama, if their reportedly frosty body language was any indication.

Germany and our other NATO allies may not want to be confronted with the truth, but they are now dealing with a U.S. president who does not apologize for America as his predecessor Barack Obama did. President Trump is not looking to win a popularity contest in Europe. He is looking for a fair deal on defense spending as well as trade, even if he must break a few eggs to get there.  

It is a fact that the United States is paying a disproportionate amount for defense compared to NATO’s other members. Only five NATO members met the goal of devoting at least 2 percent of their respective GDPs in 2017 to military spending. Poland spent 1.99% of its GDP in military spending while Germany managed only a paltry 1.2%. The United States spent 3.6% of its GDP on military spending. Using 2016 data on defense spending per capita, the United States led, spending $1,877 dollars for each citizen. Germany came in seventh place, spending $546 per capita despite being the largest economy in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. The United States contributes 22.14% of the NATO budget. Germany contributes 14.65%.  In short, based on various objective metrics, Germany is a free rider when it comes to collective defense. President Trump has every right to call Germany out on its failure to meet its responsibilities in that regard, as well as other NATO member laggards. He is also right in his insistence that Germany and the other NATO members who have not reached the 2% goal do so forthwith. In fact, the president is said to have set a new goal of 4%, which the United States is already close to achieving. 

Germany’s willingness to do extensive business with Russia is particularly troubling. Vladimir Lenin once famously declared, “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” Germany is currently sending Russia hard cash for its energy resources, which Russia will undoubtedly use to fund its military expansionism.

Germany ranks as one of Russia’s top three trading partners, reported Politico. Russian exports to Germany totaled €31.5 billion (nearly 37 billion U.S. dollars) in 2017. Much of these exports involved energy. Politico quoted Martina Werner, German Socialist Member of the European Parliament (MEP) representing Germany, who said, “The Russian economy is highly dependent on the income from gas exports to the EU, which creates a strong mutual dependence between us.” Indeed, Germany alone imported in 2015, the most recent year for which official data are available according to a report on CNN Money, 35% of its natural gas from Russia, which is more than it sourced from nearby friendlier countries such as Norway or the Netherlands.

To add insult to injury, German authorities are allowing Russia’s energy giant Gazprom to build a contentious new multibillion dollar pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, through its waters.  President Trump was especially critical of this planned additional natural gas pipeline link between Russia and Germany. He has good reason to be concerned. “Construction of Nord Stream 2 would double the capacity of the biggest direct Russian export route to its main destination, Germany,” according to a paper published by energy expert Agata Łoskot-Strachota. Ms. Łoskot-Strachota warned that “increased imports of Russian gas in combination with increased investment from Gazprom in German gas infrastructure would also translate into bigger German dependence on Russian gas.” 

Germany tends to compartmentalize geopolitical disputes with Russia from its commercial relations with Russia. However, such compartmentalization does not work in today’s complex world where economics and geopolitics are so closely intertwined. Germany is trying to have it both ways, while offloading much of the funding of a strong common defense against Russia’s growing global ambitions to the United States. 

Those who criticize President Trump for upending rules-based multilateral institutions such as NATO simply do not understand the difference between mutually beneficial multilateralism and a manipulatable version of multilateralism. Beneficial multilateralism is about cooperation among countries toward a common end, that produces net positive results for all participants against a stated (and defined) goal. However, intelligent multilateral cooperation does not mean acquiescence to whatever other countries think or want, no matter what the cost or how unfairly burdens are shared. 

President Trump may come across at times as a bull in a china shop, but he is getting results. Following the president’s stern warnings, the United States and its European NATO allies signed a declaration stating they are “committed to improving the balance of sharing the costs and responsibilities of alliance membership.” The hard part will be to get Germany and the other NATO member free riders to finally follow through on their commitments.