Perennial Friction: NATO and Burden Sharing Concerns

CSPS Fellow Connor Monie discusses the similarities between the Biden administration’s approach to NATO and the Trump administration.

Though many journalists and observers have pointed to the continuities between former President Trump and President Biden’s approaches to foreign policy, their attitudes toward America’s allies represents an area of stark divergence. Throughout the presidential campaign, Biden often drew sharp contrasts between the transactional approach of his predecessor toward the transatlantic alliance and his own more cooperative disposition. Biden came into office with an express purpose to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” a point of differentiation after Trump’s repeated missteps with European leaders: his reluctance to commit to NATO’s Article V, being the subject of laughter at the 2019 summit, and drawing ire from his criticisms of those European states that did not reach the agreed upon 2% defense spending threshold, among others.

However, in his first NATO ministerial meeting, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin struck several of the same notes as Trump toward his European counterparts, insisting on greater burden sharing. This should come as no surprise to Atlanticists: American administrations for decades have been unified in their desire to wring more defense expenditures out of their European allies. I argue that, despite the Trump administrations bombastic style, this stress point is both healthy and inevitable for alliances with asymmetric levels of capability. By tracing the history of burden sharing debates among the transatlantic community, I show that Biden will adopt the traditional inclinations of American policy towards NATO — and this should come as no surprise.

From NATO’s inception in 1949, the alliance has been characterized by continuous struggles to elicit greater contributionsfrom both smaller and larger member-states. As soon as Europe began to rebuild itself in the wake of the carnage of the Second World War, Americans were eager to offload some of the burden for providing security onto local states. The US even sought greater spending from the nascent West German state whose pernicious history of militarism stood fresh in the minds of its European neighbors. Agreements on force contributions in the early 1950s proved unattainable for even the largest members who had commitments elsewhere and internal consumption requirements that discouraged increased defense expenditures. This sticking point endured throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with events like the French withdrawal from NATO’s integrated command, fears generated by Kennedy and McNamara’s flexible response doctrine, and US involvement in the Vietnam War adding strain to an already demanding problem. By 1980, the GAO published a report that encapsulated American frustrations with European recalcitrance. It noted that “[m]ost NATO members have experienced deficiencies in addressing their force goals, even though they could financially afford to correct their most serious shortfalls.” The US saw rich, secure allies across the Atlantic free-riding on the backs of American defense dollars.

Despite the shockwaves emitted by former President Trump’s bellicosity, his rhetoric represented the evolution of — and not a departure from — the norm of US policy toward its European allies. In a strongly worded 2011 speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a stunning admonishment of NATO members’ austerity in the defense sector. Five years before his rebuke, President Bush publicly cajoled NATO allies to spend more on their own defense to shore up capability gaps in the alliance, albeit with a more moderate tone. Leaving aside variations in delivery and technique, there is a straight line connecting the frustrations of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower to those of Bush and Obama.

President Biden comes into office with a similar gripe against wealthy European allies. Defense spending has increased in recent years, yet many European governments remain unwilling to allocate the amount of resource sought by their American counterpart. Geopolitical trends will only serve to intensify US entreaties for greater equality in defense burdens: the focus on Beijing as Washington’s primary adversary will continue to put budgetary pressures on US military commitments in Europe. President Biden will be forced to walk a tightrope between his stated goal of revitalizing the transatlantic community and the tradeoffs associated with a focus on the Indo-Pacific.

President Biden and his team face the same perennial problem vis-à-vis NATO that their predecessors faced: stronger allies tend to absorb disproportionate costs in providing security for all members and chafe at that imbalance. Some scholars argue that free-riding is less harmful than it is often described to be and that the rhetoric often distorts reality. Others contend that standard metrics of burden sharing measure the wrong things, resulting in biased estimates of national defense contributions. Still others posit that smaller allies rationally pay a smaller share of alliance costs, whether because they offer different concessions or because they are incentivized by group dynamics to shirk costs. Whatever the case may be, the US interest in inducing Europeans to spend more on defense — and their disinclination to do so — will persevere throughout President Biden’s time in office.

Pleasing rhetoric notwithstanding, President Biden is likely to continue in the tradition of post-Second World War presidents by prodding the Europeans to expand their contributions to NATO. This tradition traces its roots through decades of American foreign policy all the way back to NATO’s inception. Moreover, current trends in US interests are likely to exacerbate the Biden team’s preference for greater European self-sufficiency in the defense sphere. Though the style of the new administration will certainly be a departure from President Trump’s antagonistic approach, this feature of US relations toward the NATO alliance will endure. The task of President Biden is to simultaneously placate European fears of US disengagement in light of its emphasis on the Indo-Pacific while appearing credible enough in its demands for European contributions that the Europeans take notice. This will be a difficult endeavor, but also a necessary one if the US is to synchronize its disparate commitments, interests, and regional force postures.

Connor Monie is a PhD student in political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government. He holds a bachelor’s degree in government and international politics with a concentration in international relations and a master’s degree in international security, both from George Mason University. His research interests center on interstate alliances, including alliance formation, management politics, and wedge dynamics. 

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