WASHINGTON ― The already contentious issue of burden-sharing within NATO took an unexpected swerve hours into this week’s alliance summit, with U.S. President Donald Trump telling allies he wants them to double their target for defense spending ― a figure the U.S. does not currently hit.
Under the 2010 Wales summit, NATO states agreed to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, and 20 percent of overall defense spending for modernization, by 2024. Now Trump is telling allies he wants them to be hitting 4 percent.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev told local reporters that Trump raised the idea of the higher target during meetings at the summit Wednesday, per Bloomberg. Shortly after, The Washington Post confirmed Trump had called for the increase. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has confirmed the news.
“During the President’s remarks today at the NATO summit he suggested that countries not only meet their commitment of 2% of their GDP on defense spending, but that they increase it to 4%,” she said in an official statement. “The President raised this same issue when he was at NATO last year.”
The U.S. does not currently spend 4 percent GDP on defense, although Trump has pledged to grow the military during his time in office.
According to 2017 figures from the World Bank, the nations spending more than 4 percent GDP on defense are Oman (12 percent), Saudi Arabia (10.2), Algeria (5.9), Kuwait (5.7), Republic of the Congo (5.6), Jordan (4.8), Israel (4.7), Lebanon (4.7), Russia (4.2) and Bahrain (4.0). The U.S. spent 3.1 percent GDP on defense in 2017.
Speaking to press minutes after Trump departed the summit, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was asked directly about Trump’s request.
“I will focus only on what we have agreed, and we have agreed to be committed to the pledge [of] 2 percent. Let’s start with that. We have a way to go,” Stoltenberg said.
“The good news is we have really started to deliver. I think that if you go back to 2014, and asked leaders, commentators whether European allies would make that much progress we had seen from 2014 up to today, I think many people would have doubted.”
Stoltenberg noted that a number of allies have presented national plans to reach the original target by 2024, and that European defense spending levels are rising, even if they are not all at the target threshold.
“I think we should first get to 2 percent. Focus on that now,” he added.
Trump has been focused on NATO nations failing to hit the 2 percent target since his presidential campaign, casting members as freeloaders on the backs of America. That continued on the way to the summit, with Trump tweeting while flying to Brussels Monday that “The United States is spending far more on NATO than any other Country. This is not fair, nor is it acceptable.”
That tone continued in the early moments of the summit, with Trump launching a broadside against Germany for its spending. At the end of the day, Stoltenberg tried to smooth things over in public.
“There are differences, there are discussions, there are disagreements. But NATO has made a decision, and we are delivering on the defense pledge,” Stoltenberg said. “To me, in the long run, substance is what counts, and in substance, NATO is delivering.”
This story has been updated to reflect Huckabee Sanders’ statement.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.