JHI on the Issues 2016: Are We Paying Too Much for NATO?

Candidate Statement:  At the first presidential debate on Monday, September 26, Republican candidate Donald Trump stated, “Number one, the 28 countries of NATO, many of them aren't paying their fair share… And I think we should get—because we pay approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO, it's a lot of money to protect other people.”

Summary: Donald Trump’s statement that we are paying approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO is factually inaccurate. The total NATO budget for 2016 is $2.3 billion, including $245 million in the civil budget, $1.3 billion in the military budget, and around $763 million for the NATO Security Investment Program (NSIP).  The U.S. cost share in the NATO budget currently sits at 22.1 percent for 2016-2017.  Taken as a percentage of our entire defense budget, our NATO burden stands at less than one-tenth of one percent.  Against this investment, we receive the benefit of hundreds of thousands of European troops deployed alongside our own soldiers around Europe to deter the growing threat of Russian aggression, and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq to act as a force multiplier for U.S. forces engaged in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency fights, including against enemies who could become capable of striking the American homeland.

Talking Points:

  • The U.S. cost share in the NATO budget is 22.1 percent for calendar years 2016 and 2017.
  • For 2016 our NATO obligation amounts to $514 million dollars—$55 million for the civil budget, $288 million for the military budget and $171 million for the NATO Security Investment Program, which covers investment in NATO infrastructure, facilities and installations, and command and control systems.
  • Looking at our NATO investment as a percentage of our Department of Defense Budget for FY2016, it becomes apparent just how small our burden in the alliance is.  If our current obligation for FY2016 is $514 million and the entire DoD Budget stands at $585 billion, then our NATO burden is 0.009% of our defense budget. 
  • In return, America has received substantial benefits. We have benefited from hundreds of thousands of European troops deployed not only in Europe itself but around the Mediterranean, in North Africa and the Middle East against threats that pose an active, present danger to our own national security, including most notably ISIS and Russia.
  • The NATO alliance serves as the backbone of the liberal international economic order, supporting global trade, open sea-lanes and the U.S. dollar as reserve currency that together provide the basis for American economic prosperity as we know it.
  • America’s investment in NATO must be weighed against the concrete security benefit that the United States receives from leadership of the strongest military alliance in world history, which has helped to deter nuclear conflict and Great Power war for more than sixty years. For more on America’s unique network of alliances, read JHI’s book Choosing to Lead.
  • Seventy-seven percent of Americans say that NATO membership benefits the United States.  This overwhelmingly favorable view of NATO holds even among 64 percent of Trump’s own supporters.


  • Donald Trump confuses the NATO budget and the 2 percent defense-spending “pledge” for all members of the alliance.  The former refers to the costs associated with standing up and running NATO headquarters and subordinate agencies and commands.  The latter refers to the level of spending required of member-state militaries, whose individual defense appropriations determine how much, at a national level, they can contribute to the battlefield.  As a “pledge,” the 2-percent threshold refers to member nations pledging to spend that proportion of their domestic GDP on defense in general.
  • Donald Trump’s concern about whether our NATO partners are meeting their defense spending targets is not new; nor is it altogether unfounded.  The problem of “free riders” is always present in any alliance relationship.  Addressing this problem is already and has been for some time a major focus of U.S. policy in Europe.  It is important that the United States continue to encourage its allies to do more, but it is also crucial that we understand what they are contributing to America’s own security. For more on how the U.S. could encourage our European partners to contribute more, read JHI’s Europe chapter in Choosing to Lead.
  • Of the 28 member countries, only 5—the United States, United Kingdom Greece, Poland, and Estonia—currently meet the formal obligation of spending 2 percent of their domestic GDP on defense.
  • NATO, however, has regularly admitted that the United States often shoulders a greater share of the burden when it comes to capabilities like ballistic missile defense and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  As a result of growing Russian threats to European stability, many member nations are re-evaluating their current defense spending commitments, with Poland and other Central and Eastern European (CEE) allies in particular undertaking significant spending increases in the past two years.
  • At the most recent NATO conference, NATO recommitted to supporting efforts in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Libya, and pledged to keep approximately 13,000 troops—including 5,000 U.S. troops—in Afghanistan beyond 2016.  NATO is also actively involved in training Iraqi security forces in tasks like countering improvised explosive devices.
  • In 2011 European NATO allies and partners accounted for nearly 40,000 troops in International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).  Taking into account rotations—that is, for every troop deployed in the field, there is one training up for deployment and one resting from deployment—this figure of 40,000 translates into 120,000 American military personnel who did not have to deploy to Afghanistan.
  • Partnership with NATO means that in the active counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American military is seeing a return on its investment in the alliance.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • Has the United States been getting a fair geopolitical return on its investment of less than one tenth of one percent of the U.S. defense budget toward a region that accounts for a disproportionate share of the world’s geostrategic stability and economic prosperity?
  • What would be the drawbacks of reducing the American public investment in such a region?
  • For those countries that are not meeting their targeted defense spending goals, what steps would you take to encourage them to meet their obligations?
  • What costs would the United States have to bear, financially and militarily, should NATO cease to perform its current stabilizing role in the global order?