May 22, 2024

The history of U.S. NATO policy is littered with episodes like those witnessed this summer, at least in type if not intensity

Observers might be forgiven for more than a mild degree of confusion in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s headline grabbing trip to Europe this summer. Were America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies chronic defense freeloaders who had taken advantage of U.S. taxpayers for decades or were they America’s closest friends, bound by common values, shared interests, and an iron-clad mutual security guarantee? Though the lion’s share of attention was on Donald Trump’s withering freeloader criticism of NATO allies, the U.S. president eventually left Brussels having delivered both messages. Back in Washington, the U.S. Senate acted with somewhat more clarity, passing a resolution affirming the United States’ enduring commitment to the Alliance and NATO’s central collective security guarantee. However, the Senate could also not resist the urge to raise the burden sharing concern, chronicling in a subsequent resolution a long history of U.S. efforts to get allies to spend more on defense. Though the decibel level may have hit a new and more public crescendo this summer, the underlying challenge of balancing these dual messages has plagued U.S. foreign policy since NATO’s founding. The U.S. has at once sought to encourage its allies to be more self-sufficient on defense, while still maintaining U.S. leadership, to ensure essential transatlantic security and stability. Successive U.S. administrations have never been willing to achieve the former by giving up on the latter. It is unlikely this Administration will find the trade-offs any more palatable.    

Another Day Another ‘Agonizing Reappraisal’?

The history of U.S. NATO policy is littered with episodes like those witnessed this summer, at least in type if not intensity. Frustrated in 1953 with French foot dragging on the development of an integrated European Defense Community (EDC) that would lessen dependency on the U.S., Secretary of State John Foster Dulles warned that the failure of EDC would “compel an agonizing reappraisal of basic United States policy” toward Western Europe. President Dwight Eisenhower believed such statements to be necessary “shock treatment” for the Europeans, a means of getting them to invest in European defense sufficient to create in Europe “a third great power bloc” so the U.S. could “sit back and relax somewhat.” However, Eisenhower was reticent to push shock treatment too far, repeatedly reassuring Europe that “the obligations which the United States has assumed under the [North Atlantic] Treaty will be honored.” In the end, France refused to ratify the EDC plan over concerns of a rearmed West Germany.  No U.S. agonizing reappraisal took place, and West Germany was ultimately integrated into the U.S.-led NATO Alliance. 

This pressure and fallback pattern was far from unique in NATO history or even the first decade of the Alliance. In a less-public earlier episode, Wallace Thies describes how Dwight Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), presided over an effort to determine the number of forces NATO would have available in the event of a Soviet attack. When the forces pledged to that effort were judged grossly insufficient to defend Europe from a full Soviet onslaught, NATO went back to the Allies for a more robust commitment, at which the U.S. initially demurred. Fearing that the lack of additional U.S. force commitments would weaken European resolve to oppose the Soviet Union, Eisenhower requested and received a far larger full mobilization estimate of U.S. support which assuaged the Allies’ concerns. As with Secretary Dulles’s later threat of an agonizing reappraisal, the U.S. would only test the bonds of transatlantic unity so far, in order to extract greater defense commitments from allies.

The same transatlantic bargaining tensions and resulting burden sharing patterns would hold in the decades to follow. John F. Kennedy warned that “NATO states are not paying their fair share and living ‘off the fat of the land’” but he, like Eisenhower, was unsure how to address the problem for fear of driving France, and potentially Germany, into a separate accommodation with the Soviets. In the 1980s, Senator Sam Nunn narrowly lost a Senate vote that would have withdrawn one-third of U.S. forces from Europe each year European allies did not meet the then prevailing NATO guideline requiring a 3 percent annual increase in defense spending. The Reagan Administration scrambled to successfully stave off the Senate mandate, but Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger did admit that Nunn’s efforts were the result of some allies doing “far less than seems equitable” when it comes to defense investment. The most well-known recent attack on declining Allied spending was from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose 2011 remarks at NATO warned of a “dim, if not dismal future” for NATO if allies did not improve their defense capabilities.  

The common threads in all of these early efforts to wring greater defense commitments out of Europe have remained consistent. First, the U.S. would press its allies as hard as it thought prudent to extract some level of burden sharing concessions from allies but never going so far as to threaten the foundational unity of the U.S.-led Alliance. Second, these cycles of vacillation between burden sharing demands and U.S. reassurance typically follow what Stephen Sestanovich called periods of “maximalism” and “retrenchment” in U.S. foreign policy. When the U.S. wants to do less in the world, it asks its allies to do more. When U.S. foreign policy is more ambitious, reassurance is ascendant. Finally, the record of success for these periods of more intense U.S. burden sharing pressure is mixed at best. By 1960, the U.S. share of NATO defense expenditures was back down to the 1949 level of 67 percent, off the 76 percent high in 1952. However, most of this rebalancing was the result of the end of the Korean War and declining U.S. defense expenditures. Senator Nunn’s 1984 attempt to link NATO spending to U.S. troop levels was followed by a NATO agreement to invest more in infrastructure improvements and larger munitions stocks. It was not, however, followed by significant increases in overall NATO spending. What, if anything then, do these earlier trends reveal about the Trump Administration’s efforts to wring more defense investment out of NATO?   

Taking Stock of the Current Debate

In many ways, recent U.S. burden sharing complaints and pressures are repeating these well-worn patterns. First, the Trump Administration is at once pressing its NATO allies to do more, while continuing to restate and demonstrate U.S. commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty. The budget of the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), a separate appropriation of U.S. defense dollars specifically designated for improving the U.S. defense posture in Europe, rose from an initial allocation of $1 billion in 2015 to $4.8 billion in 2018, and there is $6.5 billion requested for 2019. EDI and its predecessor the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) have funded a significant increase in U.S. force presence in Europe, an increase in the number and scale of U.S. exercises in Europe, enhanced prepositioning of U.S. equipment, improved military infrastructure, and expanded efforts to assist the Allies and U.S. partners in the development of their own military capabilities. Allies who had expressed concern over more intense White House rhetoric have taken solace in the fact that U.S. actions have been, heretofore, unequivocal. 

Second, despite this enhancement of U.S. defense capabilities in Europe, overall U.S. spending fell by 15 percent, or just over $100 billion, between 2010 and 2017, declining from peak levels during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This reflects a repeat of the tendency Sestanovich identified for the U.S. to follow overseas ventures with periods of relative retrenchment, even as Allies are prodded to step up and do more. Though this general desire to “lead from behind” began under the Obama Administration, President Trump has not altered the general direction and the national mood that his propelled it, though the actual character of the retrenchment has looked quite different under Trump. As was the case in both the 1950s and 1980s examples, U.S. rhetoric over defense burden sharing unevenness in the Alliance has risen in reverse proportion to declining U.S. international ambition.

 Allies … have taken solace in the fact that U.S. actions have been, heretofore, unequivocal

Finally, the record of both the Obama and Trump Administrations in getting Europe to carry a larger share of the NATO defense burden has been similarly uneven. In real terms, non-U.S. NATO defense spending has improved every year since the 2014 Wales defense spending commitment to reach the target of 2 percent of GDP by 2024.  This has included increases of 1.84 percent in 2015, 3.08 percent in 2016, and 4.87 in 2017. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg argues that these positive trends are expected to continue, adding an additional $266 billion in non-U.S. NATO defense spending between 2018 and 2024. Likewise, since the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO has made tremendous progress on a variety of new initiatives, including the development of a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) of approximately 5,000 soldiers that can deploy within five days; expansion of the broader NATO Response Force (NRF) from 13,000 to over 40,000 troops; the deployment of four enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battalions in the Baltics and Poland; the commitment to be capable of mobilizing 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 combat vessels within 30 days; and the addition of new NATO headquarters in Romania, Poland, Germany, and the United States.

These are all positive signs that have rightly been trumpeted by Secretary General Stoltenberg, but the major adjustments in larger allies’ spending that would signal a significant rebalance of the transatlantic defense burden is in doubt. Italy’s public budget remains constrained by EU fiscal rules, even as the new government in Rome threatens to break those rules for domestic spending, not for defense. The UK continues its march toward BREXIT with all of the uncertainty that holds for the UK economy and its security relationship with Europe. France has committed to reaching the 2 percent guideline by 2025, but the largest annual increases needed to close the gap from the current 1.78 percent of GDP spending will not occur until 2023, contingent on a 2021 budgetary review. The largest source of untapped defense spending can be found in Germany, where recent reports have painted a dire picture of German military preparedness. For its part, Germany too has pledged defense spending increases in order to reach a budgetary target 1.5 percent of GDP for defense by 2023. Even this reduced ambition, however, may be unlikely, as defense plans for higher spending will face opposition from the Social Democrats in control of the Finance Ministry, where current plans through 2022 call for only marginal increases in the defense spending level of 1.24 percent of GDP.  In light of these countervailing realities, the question of whether the NATO burden sharing glass is half-full or half-empty depends on who you ask. 

The Transatlantic Dilemma

If past is prologue, the U.S. will count the recent list of burden sharing successes outlined above as a glass half-full and continue a dual foreign policy track of simultaneous pressure and reassurance to see how much burden rebalancing might realistically be accomplished without abdicating American leadership. This is the balancing act that has been practiced by successive American presidents. The recent, post-Summit dampening of Trump Administration rhetoric appears to be signaling this longstanding approach to the transatlantic burden sharing dilemma.

However, if Washington truly seeks in Europe a defense coequal in capability, Eisenhower’s “third great power bloc,” it will likely have to engage in more extreme “shock treatment” to get changes on this order. This would require a level of retrenchment from European defense commitments that previous Administrations would not risk. Much would be at stake in such an approach: the stability of a market that constitutes one-third of global GDP; the preservation of a military alliance that, even without the U.S., accounts for a combined $300 billion in annual defense spending; and the survival of a political pact that underpins the global liberal-democratic order. If the extreme medicine worked, a unified Europe, shorn of dependence on the U.S., could become more of a global defense partner and additional bulwark to global security and stability. It could also, as German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass recently argued, challenge the U.S. when it “crosses the line.” Conversely, failure could result in a squabbling, fragmented, and weak Europe that, absent U.S. leadership, is incapable of fending off meddling foreign powers. In such a scenario, the European stability Americans and Europeans alike have come to take for granted would be in jeopardy. These are the trade-offs and risks faced by U.S. presidents since Harry Truman. To date, none have been willing to wager transatlantic security and stability on the gamble. The Trump Administration too may be coming to the realization that transatlantic burden sharing is a chronic affliction of the Alliance, but it is a malady that must be managed. A final cure may well be worse than the disease.  


Colby Lutz is a Research Intern in the Department of National Security and Strategy, U.S. Army War College. Darrell Driver is a colonel in the U.S. Army and Director of European Studies at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo: View of the NATO Summit in Brussels in July 2018, Meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the level of Heads of State and Government.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of NATO


  1. A very nice article with historical content enough to give the subject real perspective. Regardless of past history, the US NATO alliance commitment needs rethinking. During the period of the 50’s through 70’s there was reasonable concerns about a Warsaw Pact invasion, ask Hungary and Czechoslovakia about it. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Warsaw Pact, Russia doesn’t have the manpower or equipment to threaten Europe….essentially making NATO unnecessary. NATO is not going to go to war over the Baltic States, France and Germany are not going to risk their economies over three small countries. Russia is not going to allow Ukraine to join NATO, they’ll have the government overthrown first. The maturation of Europe post World War Two is at the point that NATO is merely a mechanism not worth the time, effort and money the US pours into it. If any thing NATO serves as a pretext for Russian aggression. The US could get better effect for the money spent by bolstering Poland, Ukraine and Scandinavia then wasting time in Central Europe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend