(BBG) Editorial Board: NATO Allies Can Spend More Money, More Wisely

(BBG) The 2 percent rule take into account whether nations provide what the alliance needs.

Pay up or hush up.

 Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

If Donald Trump and Barack Obama agree on something, does that mean it’s true? In the case of Europe’s woeful support of its collective defense, yes: Member states need to contribute their “fair share” toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a phrase both men used in speeches in European capitals.

The question is what “fair share” means. Instead of measuring how much member nations spend on their defense, NATO should pay more attention to how they spend it.

The current definition — members are expected to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense — is both misleading and unfair. Currently, only four European members meet the alliance’s target and things are going the wrong direction. Across Europe, including non-NATO members, military spending as a percentage of GDP has dropped by almost 9 percent in the last five years.

But some kinds of military spending are better than others. Money for major training exercises, or transport planes and helicopters for airlift operations, is far more valuable than lots of spending on ill-equipped troops in glorified jobs programs.

Spending on national defense is always going to reflect national priorities. That said, better coordination among member nations can bolster both their security and the alliance’s. A wealthy nation may want some shiny new fighter jets, but the collective defense may be better served by more prosaic equipment such as refueling tankers. To their credit, not only have the alliance’s newer members such as the Baltic States been paying up, they’ve been helpful in buying what NATO most needs.

Arriving at a consensus as to what constitutes useful spending among 28 separate militaries would be contentious and difficult, to put it mildly. It would still be a useful exercise.

What kind of criteria might NATO consider? Broadly defined, it should be measuring the ability to react quickly to a military crisis: the speed with which combat troops and their heavy equipment can be deployed; the number of tactical aircraft and major warships (aircraft carriers, cruisers, nuclear submarines and the like); the experience of pilots (as measured by flight hours); the age of its technology for reconnaissance, surveillance and other such tasks; and the percentage of defense spending on cybersecurity, and research and development. And so on.

Member nations should also get credit for contributing to alliance missions, whether in Afghanistan or with troops in the easternmost nations and waters bordering an increasingly restive Russia. The alliance could also give weight to spending per capita, a metric under which Norway towers over all members other than the United States. Finally, it might consider the percentage that each nation contributes to the continent’s overall military spending, as illustrated here:

Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies

The Europeans aren’t “free riders” (another concept both Trump and Obama have invoked). At the same time, they can certainly do more to contribute to the continent’s collective security. Coming up with more concrete and constructive ways to measure those contributions would be a great benefit to both NATO and its member nations.