As President Donald Trump careens through Europe in search of a purpose, the biggest headlines are about his demand that most other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization immediately begin spending 2% of their economic output on their military, as they agreed in 2014 to do by 2024.
Let’s leave aside the comedy value of taking tips on management from the former CEO of Trump casinos. Or of imagining a genuinely tough person like German Chancellor Angela Merkel pondering the military stylings of Cadet Bone Spurs, who, like his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, evaded the draft during Vietnam (just without Clinton’s principled opposition to the war).
Let’s talk numbers. Like the president’s hands, they’re pretty little.
The sheer size of the U.S. economy, population and federal budget dwarf all of the other 28 members of NATO. In the U.S., those numbers are $20 trillion, 327 million and $4.09 trillion, of which $700 billion is earmarked for the Defense Department. In Germany, NATO’s second-biggest player, the comparable numbers are $3.5 trillion, 83 million and $404 billion. Germany will spend $45 billion on defense this year and $49 billion next year.
The other NATO countries are even smaller. I took percentage-of-GDP data for NATO military spending by country, compiled by Yahoo Finance (hat tip to Rick Newman), and multiplied by each country’s GDP to find the amount of money Trump is complaining about.
Add it up, and the gap is a fraction of the U.S. defense budget, let alone the U.S. economy. It’s a burden barely worth mentioning. Here are some numbers.
• Norway. You know Norway. That all-white country Trump wishes would send the U.S. more immigrants, instead of “shithole countries.” At 2% of GDP, it would spend an extra $1.4 billion on defense.
• Canada, the place whose prime minister Ivanka Trump was caught on camera ogling? Our largest trading partner? $12 billion.
• Portugal? $1.3 billion.
• Slovenia, birthplace of First Lady Melania Trump? $440 million.
• France, a big economy but close to the benchmark already? $4.9 billion.
• Italy — which, remember, is a fiscal basket case in part because it has already been ruled by a Trump-like prime minister in Silvio Berlusconi? $15.7 billion. And it’s on the front lines of the migrant crisis caused in part by U.S. military adventures.
• Denmark? $2.4 billion. Hungary? $1.2 billion. Luxembourg? $1.45 billion.
• Spain, where Trump still misses Francisco Franco? $13.2 billion, which the country, strapped by foreign debt, doesn’t have.
• Turkey — home to the increasingly repressive Erdogan regime? A little less than $3 billion.
• Lithuania — a country that joined NATO out of fears of exactly such a Russian strongman as Vladimir Putin seeking to force them back under Moscow’s Cold War-style control? $236 million.
• And Germany, Europe’s model of fiscal probity, at $28 billion.
You begin to see the picture.
Put them all together, and you get about 10% of U.S. military spending, which at 3.5% of our GDP also includes funding a big military presence in the Pacific. It’s not that the U.S. is spending all this because of NATO.
Round numbers, the shortfall Trump has spent so much time complaining about is $70 billion, compared to what NATO members would spend if they were at 2% of GDP now (Britain beats the threshold, as do a few others). Trump spent part of this week complaining the U.S. pays for 90% of NATO, when the real number is 22%. Since the U.S. has a larger economy than the European Union combined, you can make the case it pays less than its share.
One way or another, the gap is peanuts.
Sure, $70 billion is more than The Donald’s net worth, but it’s way less than he’s given away in tax cuts and spending increases already.
The inheritance-tax cut alone will cost about the combined share of Lithuania, Slovenia, Denmark, Portugal, Norway and Hungary. The overall tax cut will cost $160 billion to $180 billion per year, according to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation and the right-leaning Tax Foundation.
Indeed, NATO’s whole defense gap is basically the spread between the Pentagon’s initial fiscal-2018 budget request of about $640 billion and the $720 billion for 2019 Congress approved early this year.
Most experts think Germany and the rest should spend more on defense. They agreed to do it years ago, and the case is only stronger now that the U.S. has a president in an inexplicable thrall to Putin. With Trump advocating a forgive-and-forget stance toward Russia’s annexation of the Crimean region of Ukraine, adventures in the Baltic states, at least, would be no surprise.
By the weekend, Trump will have moved on from NATO — where his demand that other countries should really spend 4% of GDP on defense will be ignored as the Twitter troll it is — to his one-on-one meeting with Putin. Who knows what he might give away there. Odds are, it’ll be worth more than the few euros he’s been kvetching about.