The U.S. paid for NATO: $30 trillion and counting
As the firestorm ignited by Donald Trump regarding the structure and utility of NATO burns on, the freeloaders in the alliance continue to whine and ask for even greater levels of subsidization.
Take Lithuania, whose defense minister recently claimed that "the harassment of an American warship [by Russian fighter jets] shows why the US should help build the region's missile defenses." A correct translation of "help build" is "have the Americans pay for."
While Lithuania is apparently now on-target to reach the preferred NATO defense-spending target of just 2% of GDP within a few years, the Lithuanians have done nothing for the common defense since the small country on the alliance's volatile periphery joined in 2004. In fact, between 2004 and 2013, its military spending dropped from a puny 1.2% of GDP down to an irrelevant 0.8% of GDP.
Since 2013, all Lithuania did is bring this back up to 1.1% by 2015. Even after the invasion of Ukraine, the best Lithuania could muster is this small increase. When the USA had to remobilize for the Korean War in the early 1950s, its defense expenditures instantaneously skyrocketed from 4.9% of GDP in 1950 to 9.7% in 1951 up to 13.3% in 1952.
With Russia breathing down its neck in Central Europe, all these front line NATO members can do -- and Lithuania is certainly not alone -- is piddle around with post-Ukraine invasion annual increases to defense expenditures on the order of just a few tenths of a percent of GDP.
Estonia's military budget remained unchanged between 2014 and 2015 at just 2.0% of GDP, Hungary's actually declined from 0.9% to 0.8%, Latvia's went from only 0.9% to 1.0%, Bulgaria's declined from 1.5% to 1.4%, Romania's was held constant at 1.4%, and Poland's increased very slightly from 1.9% to 2.2%.
To say NATO's eastern front is unserious about defending itself is being kind. Mooching off the U.S. is what is actually taking place. If any of these countries were desirous of being a meaningful contributor and holding its own weight in the alliance, defense expenditures would have been at least doubled or tripled (or more) as a share of the economy during the past couple years. Given the low defense-spending base at which these nations are sitting, such efforts would not have greatly strained their respective economies nor involved levels of spending that would have been impossible to undertake without massive waste.
This ridiculous situation is par for the course in NATO, and it was only inevitable that eventually a leading presidential candidate would call the bluff. The real question to be asked is why so many in the American pundit class and think tank universe support the freeloaders. Whose side are they on?
Shifting our tinfoil hats around, this is a serious question. Don't underestimate the extent to which many -- if not most -- of the academic and think tank class is actually playing for the other side. In Canada, the infestation of the academic and federal government worlds by those who hold linkages to Russia, China, Iran, and others, and who don't see the world in traditional pro-American NATO-esque terms, is a serious problem. One suspects the issue is as great south of the 49th parallel.
In terms of who built NATO, it was America -- of course. Cumulative military spending since each current member joined the alliance will undoubtedly be skewed heavily towards the founding members, but even among the founders it is an exclusively American club.
The United States stands at US$30 trillion and counting, almost two-thirds of all expenditures by all NATO members since the founding of the alliance -- and nearly three-quarters of all spending by the twelve founding members.
This almost sounds like real money.
And even though the population ratio of the United States to Canada has been 10:1 for the entire period since 1949, the corresponding cumulative defense-spending ratio is 30:1 despite very similar per capita GDPs.
Whoops, the biggest freeloader sits next door. Canada is US$2 trillion in cumulative NATO defense spending debt to the U.S. Good luck repaying that when your entire annual economy is only US$1.8 trillion.
But Canada is really safe, the Canadian defense spending critics claim. Yes, and why is that? Could it be because the United States foots the bill for keeping it safe? Of course, perhaps Canadians who believe they live in a perpetually uncontested part of the world forget that the United States bought Alaska from Russia in the same year as Canada became a nation. For the historically challenged, that would be 1867.
But the real dangers only exist in Eastern Europe, and Canada can still contribute effectively to NATO at defense spending levels far below the current 1.0% of GDP, the Canadian defense spending critics go on to claim. Excuse us while we take some time to roll on the floor in laughter. Canada's current military stacks up well against the 7th century barbarians fighting in the Middle East, but not so well against 21st century (or even most 20th century) forces.
The best Canada could do to assist in a serious conflict between NATO and a major power would be to build giant catapults and launch our burning used submarines from the UK and some decrepit Sea King helicopters at the opponent. We all know the Sea Kings couldn't fly themselves to the front lines -- they would undoubtedly crash along the way -- and the submarines couldn't get there on their own, either, without self-igniting, melting, and then sinking. So we'd need to ask for help getting our junk to the theatre before launching it with the hopes that the mass of the metal falling from the sky will crush a nearby Russian tank or two.
One can see the lazy nations in western continental Europe getting complacent about military spending in recent decades as the border between good and evil kept marching further east, but for those on the eastern front of the continent to start off unserious and only get less serious suggests they deserve some tough love. As do other front-line freeloaders such as Norway and Canada.
Perhaps the U.S. should tell other NATO members that if they don't increase defense spending to match the American budget as a percent of GDP (currently at 3.3% for 2015) within three years -- a reasonable target -- that any mutual defense agreements are terminated immediately.
With the exception of the UK and France, who each have a credible nuclear weapons deterrent, all other members of NATO are the proverbial "dead meat" up against Russia. No nukes, and you immediately lose a conventional war against a nuclear-armed opponent. The nuclear state need not even fire a shot, it could simply say, "surrender, or we will destroy you." Convenient such power is.
But that would never happen, the naysayers shout. Of course not, because we have never before in history seen expansionary tendencies in the European theatre that could have been thwarted by a strong alliance of surrounding states? One seems to recall a conflagration a little over 70 years ago that followed this pattern of failure.
The U.S. needs to start throwing some chairs around inside NATO meetings. It may get the desired results, but knowing the unseriousness of most member states, it may not. But without a tantrum, the freeloading will go on forever.