Observations of an Expat: What does America get out of NATO?

Donald Trump is a transactional kinda guy. He is a businessman who measures success and failure in dollars and cents.

He works on the basis of if we do something for you then we expect tangible, easily measurable, rewards in return.

America does a lot for its European NATO allies. It protects it with 100,000-plus troops on 85 European bases. Its 5,000 nuclear warheads are an essential deterrent against the 6,000 Russian nuclear warheads.

In return, successive American administrations – not just Trump – have asked their European allies to spend two percent of their GDP on defence. Only a third do. America spends 3.6 percent of its GDP on its worldwide military establishment.

Trump – and a growing number of Republicans – think that NATO is a rotten deal for America. That the Europeans are financing their social welfare programmes off the back of the American defensive umbrella.

So what does America get out of NATO? Quite a lot actually.

Let’s start by looking at what upsets the MAGA crowd the most – the balance sheet. Roughly half of all Europe’s military equipment is American-made. That is worth $400 billion a year to US weapons manufacturers. Those manufacturers employ an estimated two million people.

The Biden Administration is pushing the Europeans to buy more American military hardware. The Europeans – led by the French – see the need to build up their own defense industries, spurred on by Trump’s anti-NATO rhetoric and the Republican congressmen’s blocking of military aid for Ukraine.

What about the cost of the American bases in Europe? The country with the largest number of US bases is Germany – 40 altogether. Economists reckon that taking into account offset payments from Berlin and various other calculations that the net cost to the Pentagon of basing American troops in Germany is nil.

Of course, America’s leading role in NATO provides the US with massive political, economic and military benefits, some of which can be easily calculated, others are difficult to quantify in financial terms but play a major role in underpinning America’s role as the world’s most powerful nation.

First the easily measurable financial benefits: NATO protects America’s most stable and biggest market. In 2022 US exports to the EU totalled $592 billion and $158.2 billion to the UK. But perhaps more importantly, America also has considerable NATO-protected direct investments in Europe.  In 2021 they were estimated to be worth more than $3.6 trillion dollars in the Euro area and UK combined.

The political benefits are more difficult to quantify but still exceedingly valuable to the US. Washington can generally rely on the support of its NATO allies at the United Nations, dealing with terrorists and in relations with China, Iran and North Korea.

Europe is geographically situated to help America project its power and influence well beyond the European theatre of operations. America’s NATO bases in Europe play a major role in projecting US power and influence beyond the European theatre of operations.

The US base at Stuttgart in Germany is a command and control centre for US operations in Europe and Africa. The giant American airbase at Ramstein is a vital stopover link between the US and Africa and the Middle East.

At the moment two American aircraft carrier groups are parked off the coast of Lebanon to keep Hezbollah in check. They are part of the US Sixth fleet based at Naples, Italy.

But most important to both America and its European allies is the Article Five clause of the NATO Treaty. This one for all and all for one clause commits every member of alliance to defend any member that is attacked. It is the commitment in that clause which Donald Trump has threatened to honour. In the 75-year history of NATO alliance the “Three Musketeers” clause has only been invoked once – to defend America in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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18 Comments

  • ………….At the moment two American aircraft carrier groups are parked off the coast of Lebanon to keep Hezbollah in check. They are part of the US Sixth fleet based at Naples, Italy………

    For many years a major advantage, to the USA, of NATO has been an unsinkable nuclear aircraft carrier off the coast of Europe, ‘USS Great Britain’..

  • Steve Trevethan 17th Feb '24 - 10:50am

    Thank you for your informative research.

    Might it be that, at bottom, N. A.T. O is a military wing of the American empire and a restraint on the economies of Europe?

  • @ expats: Yes, The UK is an unsinkable aircraft carrier off the coast of Europe. That is why six US airbases are in the UK. Also, I don’t think you should forget the unsinkable UK sovereign airbases on Cyprus or at Diego Garcia.

    @ Steve Trevethan– Really depends from which side of the political fence you view the US-European relationship. For a start, if you are a social democrat you are pleased that Europe spends less on defense because of the US umbrella. It allows European countries to spend more on their welfare state provisions. The downside of this policy is that you have to sacrifice some of your defense and foreign policy to American concerns. Conversely, if you want a more independent foreign policy you will need to spend more on defense which of course usually means an increase in the always lucrative defense industries. Foreign policy, as always, is a difficult tightrope act.

  • Steve Trevethan 17th Feb '24 - 2:52pm

    In which ways are our foreign policy concerns etc other than those dictated or tolerated by the deep state of the U. S. A?

    In which ways did the « West’s » removal of a female supportive government in Afghanistan and citizen supportive government in Libya benefit the regular citizens of the U K and their children

  • @steve trevethan– so many. For a start, the protection of oil and gas supplies from the Middle East which upon which we have become more dependent following the drying up of UK North Sea reserves and Russian oil and gas. The US, I should add, is not reliant on MiddleEast energy. Then there is the protection of shipping from Asia through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. There is the protection of vital resources in Africa. The US did not remove a female-supported government in Afghanistan. It lost a war to a group of Islamic fundamentalists who introduced anti-feminist policies. Should it have continued fighting. Probably not after 20 years and $2 trilllion. Sometimes you have to retreat and cut your losses.

  • Martin Gray 17th Feb '24 - 4:18pm

    @Tom Arms….I think Steve is referring to the Communist govt in Afghanistan – and the US via the CIA arming the conservative islamic opposition..
    Women in Afghanistan had access to education & enjoyed significant rights under CP rule – something they can only dream about today ..
    As for Libya – where do you start – the rise of Isis & islamic fundamentalists, tribal warlords , factional fighting , destruction of basic amenities , civil war etc etc …

  • Jenny Barnes 17th Feb '24 - 4:31pm

    Maybe the US can no longer really afford to be the global policeman. The Pax Americana which followed the Pax Brittanica may be over. In the same way that the UK would have liked to be able to afford to be the pre-eminent world power after – say – 1913, with India the jewel inj the crown of the British Empire, maybe the USA would like to still be the global hegemon, but after the defeats in the Middle East no longer has sufficient clout?

  • Peter Chambers 17th Feb '24 - 4:32pm

    Steve Trevethan
    > the deep state of the U. S. A

    You are a sleeper agent of the Donald Trump organisation, and I claim my £5.

    Anyone who uses the term has fallen into a conspiracy theory rabbit hole.
    (Please climb back out.)

  • Steve Trevethan 17th Feb '24 - 5:44pm

    The economist Michael Hudson helpfully points out that states are effectively run by three groups:

    1) The government
    2) The most powerful
    3) The rest of us

    Typically, what a nation actually does, which is not always what it says it does, is a result of a combination of any two.

    A combination of 1 + 2 = The Deep State

    « I love digging holes, putting plants in and seeing them grow » (From Jamaica Kincaid)

    I love digging holes in what I am led to believe, planting questions and different ideas and seeing if they grow.

  • James Fowler 17th Feb '24 - 5:53pm

    While all these points are interesting and should be given more consideration than Trump is likely too, it remains a fact – as Tom points out -that most European nations do not spend the 2% of GDP on defence as agreed. In view of what has happened over the past two years this is grossly unrealistic and irresponsible. The peace dividend has long been spent, it’s time to acknowledge that world has moved on. If it takes someone like Trump to shock people to their senses, that demonstrates the degree of complacency and wishful thinking about this issue.

  • …successive American administrations – not just Trump – have asked their European allies to spend two percent of their GDP on defence. Only a third do.

    Trump’s metaphorical size 12 boot up the rear does seem to have had an effect…

    ‘Secretary General welcomes unprecedented rise in NATO defence spending’ [14th. February 2024]:
    https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_222664.htm

    Previewing this week’s meetings of Defence Ministers, Mr Stoltenberg announced that since the Defence Investment Pledge was made in 2014, European Allies and Canada have added more than $600 billion for defence. In 2023, we saw a real increase of 11% in defence spending across European Allies and Canada, which the Secretary General called an “unprecedented rise”. He added that he expects 18 Allies to spend 2% of GDP on defence in 2024 – a six-fold increase since 2014, when only three Allies met the target.

  • @Jeff: I rather think an increase in defence spending in 2023 would have more to do with the wake-up call that Putin provided in Ukraine the previous year than with a US president who lost power the year before that.

  • Jenny Barnes 18th Feb '24 - 9:20am

    At least some of the European nations need to increase defense spending more than they have. Poland is probably doing OK with their order for 1,000 or so tanks. However Zelensky is pleading for more ammunition, specifically artillery shells, following the loss of Avdiivka. Why they can’t be supplied seems to be down to the manufacturers refusing to ramp up production, but no doubt money is needed too. It’s the cheapest way of defending Europe from Russia. The UK could send any AFVs that have been deployed for the “Steadfast Defender” exercise to Ukraine following the end of the exercise.

  • “Why they can’t be supplied seems to be down to the manufacturers refusing to ramp up production”

    It’s not quite that simple. In order to ramp up production the manufacturers need to build new factories. They need to invest millions in new machinery, staff, training, long term contracts with suppliers, etc. They are saying that they can’t reasonably be expected to do this for a short time period. The huge investment needed to create the type of war economy everyone is now calling for will require ongoing contracts lasting for years.

    I was recently listening to the CEO of a Norwegian company who manufacture artillery shells. He explained that in order to pay for the investment needed they would need guaranteed purchase contracts for the next 20 years at least.

    Armament supply isn’t a tap that can simply be turned on and off. People need to remember this.

  • Ex president Trump continues to tell us what his plans are. Thanks to modern technology we are able to tune in almost in real time.
    It is silly to ignore what he says.
    So we need to answer the question about what should the rest of NATO do if his gets into the White House and one of his first actions is to do a deal with Putin, and withdraw support from Ukraine.
    One key factor will be what the reaction of the people in the UK will be.

  • The issue of production ramp ups taking time is why Russia has also faced similar shortages. They were expecting Ukraine to fall within a few days, not go into a long term war. As such, they’ve had to source things like artillery shells, drones, and body armour from countries like Iran, North Korea, and China.

    As to whether NATO is good value for money to the USA, it should be pointed out the only country that has needed to invoke Article 5 for help from its NATO allies has been… the United States of America.

  • John 19th Feb ’24 – 2:50pm:
    The issue of production ramp ups taking time is why Russia has also faced similar shortages.

    Indeed. The Russians also have problems with replacing their artillery barrels which are now so worn and fatigued that as well as degrading accuracy some explode on firing with catastrophic results.

    This was a report from the Russian front-line in September 2023…

    As we were told by artillery officers from the SVO headquarters, now the resource of artillery barrels is about 80%, and this explains the low artillery support of our defending units. They save the resource of barrels to deter the enemy in case of a big breakthrough.

    New barrels are not coming in, as the technology of their mass production is almost lost. Now they are removing barrels from the equipment that is in storage bases, which have a resource of at least 50%.

    Of course we will fulfil our tasks, but where is the role and place of Shoigu-Gerasimov in predicting this issue before the beginning of the Strategic Defence Forces.

    Now because of this miscalculation the guys are paying with their lives, and the troops have moved from offensive to defence.

    Translated from the ВДВ за Теплинского (Airborne Troops for Teplinsky) Telegram channel (subsequently removed):
    https://t.me/vdv_ZA_teplinsky/448

  • Peter Hirst 29th Feb '24 - 3:51pm

    However the finances stack up it is important that the other NATO countries can influence America regarding policy and strategy so the organisation benefits from a wide range of views and perspectives for it to function optimally.

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