Other Opinion: Obama and Trump agree on one thing - and they're right

June 22 (Reuters) - From terrorism to immigration and healthcare, President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump don't agree on much. Obama hammers Trump on immigration policy, describing his ideas as "dangero...

June 22 (Reuters) - From terrorism to immigration and healthcare, President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump don't agree on much. Obama hammers Trump on immigration policy, describing his ideas as "dangerous" and "loose talk and sloppiness." Trump meanwhile calls Obama a "lousy president" who has done a "terrible job."

Beyond the mutual disdain though, Obama and Trump do agree on one thing: When it comes to foreign policy, the United States supports too many "free rider" NATO allies who benefit from American military support without contributing enough to their own defense. While questioning the importance of NATO to the United States is anathema to much of the Washington foreign policy establishment, there are valid reasons to question the extent to which NATO truly promotes American national interests.

Surrounded by oceans on both sides and with stable neighbors to its north and south, the United States faces no existential threat in its immediate neighborhood. And while a nuclear-armed Russia could certainly destroy the United States many times over, the United States could do the same to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin possesses many unpleasant qualities - but a desire for national suicide is not one of them.

Washington also comes out on the short end of the stick financially. NATO recommends that each member spend a minimum of two percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, yet according to NATO statistics for 2015 only five countries - the United States, Poland, Estonia, the United Kingdom and Greece - meet this target. This discrepancy exists despite the fact that NATO's other members' GDP add up to almost $20 trillion - $3.5 trillion higher than that of the United States.

Two cases represent particularly strong examples of European "free riding." All three Baltic nations fear a Russian invasion and demand the United States prepare to honor its obligations under NATO's "collective defense" principle. However, while analysts refer to Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskait - as an "Iron Lady" due to her fierce anti-Putin rhetoric, Lithuania spends only 1.14 percent of GDP on defense, making Grybauskait - more like the mouse that roared than a Baltic Maggie Thatcher. And with military spending of only 1.06 percent of GDP, Latvia is even worse. The Baltics may indeed believe Vladimir Putin's tanks could roil across their borders at any moment, but if so, their militaries' postures certainly don't reflect this concern.


American leaders also need to have a hard conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany possesses by far the largest economy in Europe, with a GDP approaching $4 trillion. Yet in 2015, Berlin spent only 1.18 percent of GDP on defense - representing a shortfall of over $30 billion.

The condition of Germany's military equipment does not inspire confidence, either. Germany's military cargo planes can't always get off the ground, and the German military admits that many of its tanks, helicopters and fighter jets are also grounded. And in one particularly embarrassing case, during a major NATO exercise in 2014 German troops compensated for a lack of heavy machine guns by using broomsticks instead.

Moreover, though NATO confronts Russia, Berlin does business with Russian gas monopoly Gazprom. Last September, Gazprom and various European companies signed an agreement to construct the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipelines directly between Germany and Russia. Nord Stream 2 bypasses Germany's central and east European allies - including Ukraine - costing them transit revenue and weakening their leverage over Russia.

Although Germany's NATO allies are not happy with Nord Stream 2, on a trip to Moscow in October, German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told his hosts that Nord Stream 2 would "remain under the competence of the German authorities - then opportunities for external meddling will be limited." Germany has every right to pursue its own economic and security interests - even if a deal like Nord Stream 2 weakens Western sanctions against Moscow. But this type of self-interested behavior should make Washington policymakers think long and hard about how exactly NATO's current structure promotes American national interests.

Luckily for the United States, the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw offers the perfect opportunity for American policymakers to rethink NATO's purpose and structure. For one thing, it's long past time to put a break on admitting new members to NATO. NATO is a military alliance, not a book club, and prior to further expansion - particularly into the former Soviet Union - the United States should assess its capabilities and willingness to go to war on behalf of existing members, much add less new ones.

Second, American policymakers should tell their NATO allies that it's time to get serious about increasing their defense spending. If NATO's 27 other members all upped their contributions to a minimum of two percent of their GDP, that would represent an additional $132 billion in defense spending - enough to genuinely impact NATO's overall capabilities. To add teeth to the cajoling, Washington should inform the 23 NATO members not spending two percent of GDP on defense they have five years to reach this target - and that any countries that don't do so risk forfeiting their American security guarantees. Although this sounds extreme - and represents something the United States might never follow through on, anyway - it would at least concentrate minds in Europe.

President Obama also needs to have a separate conversation with Baltic leaders, especially from Lithuania and Latvia. If Baltics' fears truly align with their rhetoric, the three could look for guidance to Israel, another tiny country which views itself as facing existential threats. Israel's population is only eight million - over 25 percent of whom are exempt from mandatory military service - yet the Israelis spend over five percent of GDP on defense, and possess a standing army of 160,000.

The Baltics by contrast - with combined populations of six million - field only 22,000 total active duty troops. If the Baltics want the United States to risk blood and treasure defending them, they should increase the combined size of their standing armies to 80,000 - still only half that of Israel - and both Latvia and Lithuania must follow Estonia in meeting NATO's two percent threshold.


Finally, the United States should strongly support European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker's call for the EU to form its own army outside NATO. According to Juncker, "With its own army, Europe could react more credibly to the threat to peace in a member state or in a neighboring state - a common European army would convey a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending our European values."

From an American perspective, this makes perfect sense. A common European army would encourage America's allies to take greater responsibility for their own defense, allowing the United States to more effectively implement more effectively implement Obama's oft-discussed "pivot to Asia." To be sure, given the numerous splits within the EU a European army may seem farfetched, but it remains something Washington should encourage its allies to pursue.

The United States need not abandon its NATO allies - but it is time for Washington to insist they carry their own weight.


By Josh Cohen

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. The opinions expressed are his own.

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