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Trump’s push for NATO buildup is nothing new, but it is wise

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Akron, Ohio, Monday, Aug. 22, 2016.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Akron, Ohio, Monday, Aug. 22, 2016.

Gerald Herbert, AP

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump wants NATO members to pay their fair share into the transatlantic alliance. But that’s nothing new.

Since the end of the Cold War, every American administration has made the same demand.

And it’s still a bipartisan stance. Leaders and candidates in both parties — from Bernie Sanders to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) — have called for NATO members to put more skin in the mutual defense game.

So do our allies. In particular, Central European countries, who feel the pressure of Russian adventurism most of all, know they need to shoulder their share of the load.

At the 2006 Riga Summit, NATO heads of state agreed that European members of the alliance should spend at least 2 percent of domestic GDP on defense.

Estonia has met that commitment, and others are working in that direction. In fact, in 2015, 19 NATO members halted what had become a pattern of cuts to defense spending, and 16 of those nations actually increased their defense spending.

The 2 percent pledge makes sense. A sustained commitment to maintaining armed forces over time makes for a better, more cost-effective defense.

Peace dividends are expensive. Whipping the size of defense forces up and down like a thermostat is what drives a lot of the inefficiencies for maintaining sufficient ships, planes and troops to reassure allies and deter potential enemies.

Gross domestic product works as a general measure of obligation much in the way families set aside a portion of their income for housing, savings and other vital expenses — ensuring that essentials are paid for first and that the family can live within its budget.

Were the U.S. to field all the forces needed to protect U.S. vital interests in key regions of the world, it would require about 4 percent of U.S. GDP — year in and year out.

The American economy is roughly the same as the economy of all Europe. U.S. defense commitments to NATO plus Asia and the Middle East are twice as big.

Four percent for America is not unreasonable — half that, 2 percent for Europe, sounds about right as a rough baseline measure.

And there is a need for NATO to be a capable force. The stronger NATO is, the less tempting it is for Russia to meddle in transatlantic affairs, the better the transatlantic community can respond to emergencies arising from an unsettled Middle East, and the better the alliance can deal with emerging threats like cyber warfare and transnational terrorism.

What jarred many in Washington and other capitals was how candidate Trump suggested he would push other NATO nations to fulfill their burden-sharing commitments — by making U.S. commitments contingent on theirs.

Campaign rhetoric is not always a reliable guide to what an administration might actually do in office. And certainly there are other ways by which the U.S. could help its NATO allies up their game such as:

  • Boost the transatlantic economy. This will help us and our allies afford the defense we need. Reaching a U.S.-U.K. free trade agreement would be a huge benefit; the two countries account for about 80 percent of NATO’s capabilities.

Lead by example. Let’s be honest: U.S. military power is what makes NATO a military force to be reckoned with. It does countries no good to build up their capability unless they have a strong, confident U.S. military to partner with. Washington should build back to four U.S. brigades permanently forward-deployed in Europe.

Make NATO a strong political alliance. With the European Union unraveling, NATO is the only coherent political-military voice that can shepherd peace and security in a part of the world where peace and security is important to the U.S.

NATO needs to get better. And America needs a better NATO.

A 25-year Army veteran with a master’s and doctorate from Georgetown University, Heritage Foundation Vice President James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on foreign policy and defense issues. Readers may write him at Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.