A Battle Brews Before 2019 NATO Summit

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Sorgt für Schäden und Entfremdung bei den Beziehungen zu Europa: US-Präsident Donald Trump am Nato-Gipfel in Brüssel (2018).

Sorgt für Schäden und Entfremdung bei den Beziehungen zu Europa: US-Präsident Donald Trump am Nato-Gipfel in Brüssel (2018).

A battle seems to be brewing ahead of this year’s NATO Summit, expected to be hosted by the United Kingdom in London this December to mark the Alliance’s 70th anniversary, and as a Minister-level meeting of the North Atlantic Council is about to be held in Brussels. The foundations for this conflict reach back to the 2006 NATO Summit – held in Riga, Latvia – at which the then 26 member states agreed to commit a minimum of 2% of their respective Gross Domestic Products (GDPs) to defence spending. Since his election, US-President Donald Trump has emphasized the importance of this 2% commitment and scolded European allies who have consistently fallen short. However, the mid-2018 formation of a new coalition government in Italy, comprised of the Five Star Movement and the “Lega Nord“, promises considerable pushback on that 2% target.

Specifically, Italy’s new Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta has argued that non-military investments should be counted toward the targeted levels of defence spending, encompassing infrastructure projects and cyber-security. It is difficult to discern exactly how far Trenta would expand the definition of defence spending, though. For example, would a fibre-optic cable linking remote communities in Canada’s North to high-speed Internet be considered sufficiently integral to Canadian cyber-security that it would qualify as part of that country’s total non-military defence spending? Or would only spending on initiatives like the Norwegian Cyber Defence Force, an existing branch of the Norwegian Armed Forces, be deemed relevant, and, if such a narrow definition were to be adopted, how would this represent any meaningful change in how NATO defence spending is calculated?

Defence expenditure as a share of GDP (%)

Defence expenditure as a share of GDP (%) — Source: NATO, “Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2011-2018)“, March 14, 2019.

Yet this is not the first time questions have been raised by member states regarding the validity of the 2% target and how it is calculated. At the 2014 NATO Summit, both Canada and Germany contended that the 2% target is purely “aspirational” and that the quality of defence spending and a given member state’s contributions to the Alliance should be weighted more heavily than what share of that state’s GDP is devoted each year to defence spending. For example, for those member states with mandatory military service, such as Greece and Turkey, it might be relatively easy to approach or even meet the 2% target while still having only minimal resources available to commit to the Alliance’s collective defence. Meanwhile, despite consistently falling far short of the 2% target, Germany was one of the largest contributors to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deployed to Afghanistan and the second largest contributor to NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR).

However, the Canadian and German protest was geared more so toward debunking the 2% target than offering a more inclusive formula for determining the extent of a member state’s contributions to the Alliance. As such, if Italy hopes to change opinions among fellow members ahead of the London Summit, a more detailed alternative should be offered, as the 2014 stalemate did little to deter President Trump from threatening in 2018 to withdraw the US from the Washington Treaty, a considerable escalation from past laments that the US bears a disproportionate share of the costs for trans-Atlantic security. Such an alternative framework could highlight the direct contributions of individual member states to NATO projects or NATO-related initiatives, such as hosting NATO Centres of Excellence (COEs) or the NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&C Force). Italy could certainly benefit from such a revised formula, as the country is a contributor to the NAEW&C Force, hosts two accredited NATO COEs (the Modeling and Simulation COE in Rome and the Stability Policing COE in Vicenza), and is a financial contributor to seven other NATO COEs.

Another benchmark - that countries should spend at least 20% of their defence budget on equipment - is perhaps more meaningful.

Another benchmark – that countries should spend at least 20% of their defence budget on equipment – is perhaps more meaningful. — Source: NATO, “Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2011-2018)“, March 14, 2019.

Italy might find widespread support for this or some other proposal to revise the way contributions are measured, as only seven member states met the 2% target in 2018: the US, Greece, the UK, Estonia, Poalnd, Latvia and Lithuania. However, the vast majority of member states, as indicated in the chart, will find themselves in very much the same position as Italy: struggling to provide for the needs of an aging population amid a global economic slowdown, while falling short of the 2% target on defence spending. The future of the Alliance, which has provided peace and security for the trans-Atlantic over almost 70 years, might well depend on what Trenta and her colleagues can hash out in Brussels and the following few months.

More information
Patrick Truffer, “NATO & Trump: relationship status – complicated“, offiziere.ch, June 13, 2017.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Paul Pryce, Security Policy.

1 Response to A Battle Brews Before 2019 NATO Summit

  1. Giovanni Martinelli says:

    The proposal coming from Italian Ministry of Defence Elisabetta Trenta is just a smokescreen.
    First of all, it aims to disguise the fact that Italy is not comlpying and is not going to comply in future with guidelines established in the NATO Wales Summit of 2014: increase defence spending in real terms, move towards 2% of GDP in defence spending in 2024 and devote 20% or more of their spending for “major equipment”. Since 2014, Italy has reduced in real terms its defence spending and in 2019 will even miss the target of 20% in “major equipment”.
    Secondly, as mentioned in the article, such considerations raise many doubts on the exact perimeter of what can be considerate as military expenditure.
    And third, enlarging the number of voices to be included in the definition of “NATO defence expenditure”” would require at the same time the rise of the guideline of 2% of GDP in defence spending. In this case, the difference beteween Italy would be even bigger than now.
    The only truth is that this new Government does not recognize the importance of his commitment in NATO and is trying to find any possible way to elude this issue.

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