Revisiting the Principles of NATO Burden-Sharing

Portuguese Marines and US OspreyBy Alexander Mattelaer


A widespread consensus has emerged in the United States that European allies fail to pay their fair share when it comes to defense. Although this debate is hardly new, the present intensity of naming-and-shaming allies is striking. Donald Trump, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, had loudly argued that NATO is “costing us a fortune” that cannot be afforded anymore. In a striking parallel, President Barack Obama has openly complained about “free riders” and forcefully argued that “Europe has been complacent about its own defense.” While Democrats and Republicans may agree on little else, the debate on NATO proves bipartisanship still exists.

Transatlantic disagreement on how to split NATO’s bills is as old as the Alliance itself. The fundamental bargain between US commitment to defending its allies and European contributions to NATO can be measured on the basis of many different parameters. Spending a fixed share of gross domestic product on defense constitutes only a crude indicator of transatlantic commitment. To make matters worse, methodological nuances in measuring contributions often serve to obfuscate differences in political ambitions that nations seek to realize through their NATO membership. Put simply, European nations want to be allied with the United States when their policy preferences converge—as they are likely to do whenever their defense is concerned—but may not want to contribute to those US undertakings about which they have strong reservations, such as further NATO enlargement, ballistic missile defense, or certain expeditionary operations. The transatlantic row over Iraq in 2003 constitutes a clear example thereof.

This article argues the discussion on burden-sharing needs to be continuously relearned on both sides of the Atlantic. On the one hand, this relearning requires methodological nuance and rigor. Depending on the metrics used, the picture that emerges looks very different. On the other hand, a careful appreciation of security trends is in order because these will eventually herald an evolution in terms of the military tasks that need to be distributed across the Alliance. NATO functions best when such a wide approach to burden-sharing is maintained. At its inception, the Alliance was organized around a set of principles that bridged these different dimensions. Given that NATO leaders declared 2014 to be a pivotal moment in Euro-Atlantic security, the Warsaw Summit would do well to reconnect proven ideas with future challenges.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum (Trident Juncture 2015) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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