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With the kickoff of the NATO summit in Brussels, the contentious issue of military burden-sharing between America and its allies has again raised its head. Any hope that the summit may reinforce and showcase alliance solidarity at a tense and dangerous time in Europe may be squandered by this hardy perennial.
President Donald Trump is right that Germany, like many European allies of the United States, under-invests in the common defense. The best comparative measure of a country’s military burden-sharing is probably the size of its defense budget relative to gross domestic product (GDP). The United States spends about 3.5 percent of its GDP on the American armed forces; NATO’s minimum target for all its alliance members is 2 percent; Germany clocks in at roughly 1.2 percent. Give the Germans some credit—they have led the way at sustaining European Union sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine since 2014, they take in lots of immigrants, and they give lots of foreign aid. All these measures can enhance security. But even counting them, Germany spends perhaps half as much, as a percent of GDP, as America.
The net cost to the American taxpayer of having those forces in Germany rather than the United States is roughly zero.
However, as reported recently by the Washington Post, President Trump’s recent complaint has centered on the costs of keeping some 35,000 U.S. troops permanently stationed on German soil. Trump insinuates that this troop presence is mostly for NATO Europe’s benefit and that an ungrateful Berlin pays too little of the costs associated with basing them in Germany. On these points, Trump is more wrong than right. In fact, the net cost to the American taxpayer of having those forces in Germany rather than the United States is roughly zero. Trump needs to understand this fact as he meets with U.S. allies.