The 2% Benchmark Is Blinding Us to NATO Members’ Actual Contributions

Two Leopard 2A4 tanks of Norway's armed forces take part in NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania in June 2017.

Torbjørn Kjosvold / Norwegian Armed Forces

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Two Leopard 2A4 tanks of Norway's armed forces take part in NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania in June 2017.

It is far more revealing to look at the forces and capabilities each country sends abroad on alliance missions.

Take a glance at NATO’s defense spending statistics, and Denmark looks like a mediocre member. Last year, the Scandinavian country spent 1.17 percent of GDP on defense, far below NATO’s 2-percent benchmark. But a closer look at the country’s military deployments reveals a rather different picture: Denmark is, in fact, a NATO starlet. Members’ contributions to alliance missions matter as much as their defense spending. We should encourage them to be more like Denmark.

In Mali, the Danish armed forces have a 62-troop C-130 Hercules detachment. They have 199 troops in Iraq and have smaller groups elsewhere, including Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base and Kosovo. Next year, Denmark will boost its contribution to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia from five troops to 200, and it’s about to increase its Afghanistan force to 150 men and women. Currently, 702 Danish troops are on foreign deployment, 389 of them on NATO missions.

Or look at Norway, which similarly does not qualify for NATO’s Two Percent Club: it spends 1.56 percent of its GDP on defense. But Norwegian special forces played a crucial role in Afghanistan and are now involved in the fight against ISIS. Norway also has 200 troops in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania, and troops in, among other places, Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

“Norway contributes to the alliance both by having a strong national defense [and] by contributing to NATO’s collective defense and by participating in out-of-area NATO missions,” Norway’s defense minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, told me by email. “We’ll also host the high-profile exercise Trident Juncture 2018, which will be a very important opportunity for joint operations with our allies.”

Italy’s low 1.11 percent defense spending likewise doesn’t reflect its disproportionate contribution: currently, some 7,000 Italian troops serve abroad, including 1,037 troops in Afghanistan. Only the U.S. has a larger contingent there. Italy also has 551 troops in Kosovo — again, second only to the U.S. By contrast, in 2014 (the latest year available) Greece deployed none of its 21,500 deployable troops on NATO missions, though it did spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense. Poland, with 2-percent defense spending and a population of 40 million, deployed an average of 877 troops in 2014, and has just 198 troops in Afghanistan.

The Baltic states also make efforts that go beyond their spending, said Sir Christopher Harper, a former air marshal in the Royal Air Force who was, until last year, director-general of NATO’s international military staff. “They’re making huge efforts to beef up regional security, including working with [non-NATO members] Sweden and Finland,” Harper said. “They’re doing things that some larger members haven’t done.”

Yet NATO has no Alliance honor roll for countries whose contributions involve not just money but casualties as well. And while NATO does list the number of troops involved in each of its missions, there’s no sheet showing each country’s combined commitment to the alliance.

The 2-percent focus, a former senior NATO official told me, comes from U.S. legislators. “You can spend all the time in the world telling US legislators that a country that spends one percent may spend it more wisely than one that spends two percent, but US legislators take a very simplistic view,” he explained.

There’s another reason no NATO top-achiever charts exist and that members’ annual contributions are classified: member states would not agree to publish the information. NATO operates by consent, and it doesn’t do public naming and shaming. It also doesn’t list  members’ use of caveats – the practice by which they choose less-dangerous assignments. “Caveats are the bane of any operational commander’s life,” said Sir Christopher. “But it’s a political reality that sovereign nations apply their own rules of engagement to their troops.”

As things stand, the only performance metrics the public can see are defense spending and spending on equipment. By that measurement, the U.S., the UK, Greece, Estonia and Poland are the alliance’s star performers, all meeting the 2-percent benchmark. Luxembourg, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Norway, the U.S., France, Turkey, the UK and Italy meet the less celebrated equipment spending benchmark of 20 percent. On both lists, Denmark sits near the bottom.

NATO’s reporting won’t change, even though there’s general recognition that 2-percent-of-GDP is a blunt measuring tool. And defense spending does measure countries’ commitment to their own security. There’s no doubt that Italy, Denmark, Norway and other stragglers should spend more on their armed forces. “Make no mistake: defense spending is important to assure preparedness and enhance capabilities in an increasingly unsafe world,” agreed Stefano Stefanini, a former ambassador of Italy to NATO. “Two percent is a useful term of reference, and there should be no complacency about lagging behind it. Yet it can’t be the only yardstick in ranking NATO allies.”

Exactly so. Neither U.S. legislators nor the rest of us should stare ourselves blind at 2-percent allegiance. Instead, we should encourage NATO governments to go beyond simply spending on defense and up their contributions to the alliance as well. Such contributions, Stefanini points out, can take place in security areas that don’t count towards the defense budget: domestic counterterrorism; intelligence; cyber-security of strategic civilian infrastructures. And, he added, “There’s risk-taking. Countries like Denmark, Italy and Norway are risk-takers; witness their consistent availability. NATO knows very well that when it calls on Oslo, Copenhagen or Rome it will get a response: assets and, when need be, boots on the ground.”

Yes, the U.S. goes the extra mile for Europe, for example, by stationing some 30,000 Army soldiers here. But farther from the spotlight, so do countries like Italy, Denmark and Norway. Such overachievers should get credit for their efforts just as two percent spenders do. But praise is not enough. NATO shouldn’t have to rely on a few overachievers to assemble and run its missions. Much like the residents of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, all NATO members should be above-average contributors.

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