It’s like clockwork: As NATO’s late June summit in Madrid approaches, the debate over whether allies spend too little on defense grows louder. NATO defense ministers pledged in 2006 to spend at least 2 percent of their nation’s gross domestic product on their defense annually. Today that’s become a totemic object for the alliance—especially for Americans who insist that others are spending too little. There is a certain truth in that, but there are much more pressing concerns for NATO than tracking this figure. Leaders should be asking harder questions about how the money is being spent and how the security burden can be shared, not obsessing about who’s giving their fair share.
The pledge was reaffirmed in 2014 at NATO’s Wales summit by alliance leaders, because NATO states were collectively failing to meet the 2006 commitment, thanks to decades of chronic underinvestment by European states on their militaries, which, unsurprisingly, led to significant capability gaps in their ability to conduct military operations. This, in turn, meant that the United States, which spends more than 3 percent annually, was absorbing the lion’s share of the costs associated with securing Europe. As the argument went in 2014, the United States would be much more amenable to continuing its investment in trans-Atlantic security if NATO nations would just spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense.
Getting all NATO heads of state to agree to the 2 percent minimum target was a laudable achievement—and one that might not have happened if Russia hadn’t invaded Ukraine earlier that year. But the 2 percent target has proved to be both operationally insufficient and strategically counterproductive. Ultimately, without some serious adjustments to the strategic debates, a focus on the 2 percent minimum target only severely hurts NATO’s relevance—and public support for the alliance.
Kathleen J. McInnis is a senior fellow in the International Security Program and the director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Daniel Fata is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO in the George W. Bush administration. He is currently a nonresident senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.