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There’s a Better Way to Press for NATO Burden-Sharing

An assessment of alliance planning for 2014-18 shows what actually gets members to boost collective defense.

In his quest for a NATO “reset,” President Biden has declared that “America is back,” offered a renewed commitment to transatlantic cooperation, and — like every post-WWII president — called for Europe to do its part for collective defense. But his measured tone on the latter point stands in sharp contrast to that of his immediate predecessor. Donald Trump made burden-sharing the “singular preoccupation” of his engagement with NATO, demanding allies meet their own goal of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of GDP on defense.

In fact, defense spending is up across nearly all NATO allies since 2014, and many more allies have met the 2 percent goal over the last four years. But as a measure of burden-sharing, the 2 percent goal is problematic for several reasons, not least because it only measures inputs, not security outputs, such as the tanks, fighter jets, brigades, and submarines necessary for defense. NATO tried to address this by getting allies to spend 20 percent of their defense budgets on major new equipment, including related research and development. However, even this commitment does not necessarily provide an answer to the question of whether allies are producing the specific security outputs that NATO needs. 

The NATO Defence Planning Process, or NDPP, is a far more effective measure of whether the allies are contributing relevant, necessary security outputs. The quadrennial NDPP is designed to harmonize national and alliance defense planning activities to meet agreed defense capability targets. As President Biden continues to reset relations with NATO, his administration needs to ask whether former President Trump’s seemingly ceaseless browbeating of allies produced results, especially as seen through the NDPP.

As it turns out, during the most recently completed iteration of the NDPP – from 2014 to 2018 – the allies agreed on a path forward for every single one of the identified capability requirements. This was very significant, because in every other iteration of the NDPP since the end of the Cold War, necessary capability requirements remained unfulfilled as allies failed to take them up. The 2014-18 iteration of the NDPP was a remarkable achievement in terms of burden-sharing, and one NATO hopes to replicate in the future. 

So, is Trump the reason why? And if so, does that mean President Biden should replicate Trump’s methods, including making America’s pledge to defend European allies conditional on whether they’ve “fulfilled their obligations”

To answer these questions, I engaged in a year-long study of the 2014-18 iteration of the NDPP, including dozens of interviews with key individuals at NATO headquarters in Brussels and among the allies. Based on those discussions plus other available evidence, recent improvements in burden-sharing as measured by the NDPP can be attributed to three factors. 

First, the most significant element was the changed threat environment starting in 2014. In particular, the role played by Russia cannot be overstated. Its invasion and de facto occupation of the Donbas, its illegal annexation of Crimea, and its unremitting efforts to politically destabilize and intimidate countries across the continent have together formed the most important event in regional security since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. 

From the end of the Cold War until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO had slowly but steadily lost the ability to conduct large-scale maneuver warfare, a capability necessary if not sufficient to defend against a Russian attack. Alliance manpower, doctrine, strategy, training, and equipment had shifted toward smaller, lighter, and expeditionary operations, as in Kosovo or Afghanistan. Russia’s actions in 2014 and since changed all that. In the halls of NATO headquarters and in allied capitals, there was a widespread recognition that reconfiguring the alliance toward deterrence and defense against Russia required a major reinvestment in conventional maneuver warfare capabilities. 

Second, the American emphasis on the 2 percent goal and burden-sharing more generally played an important role. President Trump deserves some credit for this, but so too does President Obama for bringing the issue of burden-sharing to the forefront of NATO leader discussions starting in 2014. Clearly, presidential and prime ministerial attention, focus, and rhetoric have a way of driving decision-making at all other echelons of government. When allied leaders agree on spending targets, defense ministers gain influence and power in interagency or inter-ministerial debates, particularly relative to finance ministers who often wield decisive authority when it comes to doling out fiscal largesse.

However, American leaders need to be careful when and how far they press the case for burden-sharing. Presidents who are unpopular in Europe risk generating resistance to greater burden-sharing if they push too caustically or aggressively. Arguably, Trump’s vociferous approach led to counter-reactions that made it more difficult politically for European leaders to increase defense spending.

Finally, the third factor was the role played by the NATO international secretariat. In particular, new players in key roles within NATO headquarters and at the Norfolk, Virginia-based Allied Command Transformation instituted vital procedural changes. These included building more rigor, transparency, and multinational consultations into the 2014-2018 NDPP. They coupled these changes with deft diplomatic creativity – not to mention an extension of deadlines for capability development – in allocating capability requirements and convincing allies to not reject any. The willingness of what might be termed ‘policy entrepreneurs’ in the NATO international secretariat to pursue their remit to its utmost in these ways was critical at several points to the success of the 2014-2018 NDPP.

For the Biden administration, there are several takeaways relevant to its unfolding allied reset. First, press burden-sharing privately as well as publicly, but try to avoid inadvertently generating the anti-bodies that make it more difficult for America’s friends to stay on side. Second, pay careful attention to who sits where inside NATO. Individual leaders in key NATO positions play a vital role in burden-sharing debates, processes, and outcomes. And finally, relentlessly leverage in public diplomacy and in closed-door diplomatic consultations the missteps of Russia, China, and other malign actors vis-à-vis Europe. They will most certainly make them, and Washington needs to be nimble and creative in exploiting adversary mistakes.

John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, and the author of Coalition of the unWilling and unAble. His study on the 2014-18 NDPP can be found here. The views expressed are his own.