The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has evolved greatly over the past few generations. The Dunkirk Treaty, signed in March 1947, was designed to protect certain countries like France and the United Kingdom from a potential attack from Germany. This, along with other international treaties, laid out the groundwork for the defensive alliance offered by NATO.
In recent times, however, there have been tensions between the United States and other NATO member nations regarding financial contributions to NATO.
Former President Donald Trump believed the European members were not spending enough money to support the alliance, and were relying too heavily on the United States to “shoulder the burden.” Trump specifically claimed that Germany has been delinquent with its NATO payments.
In 2014, members of the alliance came to an agreement that each of the states should gradually increase their own defense spending to 2% of their respective GDP by 2024, but as it currently stands, Germany pays just over 1%. Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to hit the goal of 2% only by the 2030s rather than 2024 like the rest of the member states.
The United States is by far the largest contributor to the alliance, with over 70% of NATO’s military expenditures being directly funded by the US. There is validity in U.S. leaders wanting other member states to step up. In addition, only six of thirty other member states contribute 2% or more of their GDP to NATO. Germany has the third highest population and the second highest GDP, but is only the 17th highest contributor in terms of GDP percentage. Smaller countries such as Montenegro, Estonia, and Croatia—whose total GDPs are tiny fractions of that of Germany—are contributing far larger portions of their GDPs but require far fewer troops.
In this regard, Trump made a valid point in bringing attention to this imbalance. However, his methods of bringing attention to this unequal burden only heightened tensions as opposed to creating solidarity and cooperation, as NATO was initially intended to do.
Now that President Joe Biden is in office, one of his first orders of business has been communicating with various world leaders in an effort to smooth over tensions left by the previous administration. On January 24th, 2021, Biden called French President Emmanuel Macron to express his desire and commitment to strengthen bilateral ties and collaborate in solving global issues through the coordination of NATO.
Two days later on January 26th, Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg shared a call, which is available for public consumption. Their conversation was quite similar to that with Macron. President Biden spoke of his intent to “rebuild and re-establish” alliances. He emphasized the importance of “shared democratic values” and expressed his determination to strengthen NATO and cooperate in addressing transnational threats, such as climate change and global health security.
President Biden and Secretary General Stoltenberg of NATO also touched lightly on ensuring that there is fair burden sharing. This topic caused so much tension between Trump and other European leaders, notably Chancellor Merkel, that it will most likely be addressed at the Brussels NATO summit, which has yet to be scheduled.
When Biden called Chancellor Merkel on January 25th, he spoke of wanting to “revitalize” the United States’ alliance with Germany, particularly through NATO. There was no specific mention of Germany’s low financial contribution nor the United States’ previous threats against Germany under the Trump administration. While Chancellor Merkel has generally been supportive of Biden’s election, there are likely still unresolved issues between the two nations that would require far more than a phone call to mend.
The United States is not the only NATO member that is skeptical of Germany—many allies are questioning whether Germany can fulfill its financial commitments to the alliance. The US’s censure of Germany has been enough to get the other European members to straighten up. If Macron and other leaders’ warm welcome of the Biden administration means anything, it is that NATO members are not quite willing to challenge the US’s authority when it comes to this alliance.