It is no secret that the United States shoulders the lion’s share of NATO’s defense spending. This was true during the Cold War, where the U.S. funded roughly one-half of NATO’s budget, but has become a more contentious point for the transatlantic alliance since the end of the Cold War. For most of the post-Cold War period, the U.S. burden amounted to two-thirds of NATO’s defense expenditures; in 2015, the U.S. accounted for almost three-quarters.[1] This lack of burden-sharing has put severe strains on the alliance and its military capabilities; European allies must either boost defense spending or else redefine what should be considered adequate contributions to NATO capacities.

Between 1948 and 1951, the United States provided over $13 billion in aid for Europe’s economic recovery as part of the Marshall Plan.[2] Likewise, while NATO was designed to “keep the Soviets out and the Germans down,” according to Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, it also was a way to “keep the Americans in,” and symbolized an American commitment to the rebuilding of Europe. This came to be known as the transatlantic bargain: The U.S. assumed the leading position in NATO and Europe, in exchange for U.S. defense guarantees, while there was an expectation that European NATO members would increase their defense efforts over time.

During the Cold War, non-U.S. NATO members did contribute substantially to the alliance, with the U.S., UK, France, and Germany spending 5.7, 4.0, 3.6, and 2.9 percent of their GDP on defense in 1988, respectively.[3] Burden-sharing dilemmas also existed, but intensified after 1991. The stats are well known: Whereas in 2009, ten NATO countries still fulfilled the 2 percent commitment (considered the unofficial target since 2006) as of 2012, only four NATO members met the threshold.[4]

U.S. administrations have consistently criticized the transatlantic gap in defense spending and demanded NATO allies carry a greater share. Obama officials thus grew increasingly impatient with European allies after NATO operations in Libya; similarly, Trump officials have frequently called for increased defense spending since January 2017.

Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, has pledged to boost defense spending from 1.2 percent of GDP in 2016[5] to 2 percent by 2024 (the alliance’s official deadline for meeting the, arguably crude, target). Even though this is commendable, greater contributions toward NATO capacities—and sooner—would go a long way as transatlantic relations have become more unpredictable since President Trump assumed power. A reinvestment in the transatlantic security alliance also appears imperative as the Russian bear has reawakened, and Europe remains affected by Jihadist insurgent groups in its own backyard.

In addition, it bears reminding that a wide range of instruments of statecraft are needed when looking for long-term solutions to international conflicts and transnational terrorism. Underlying causes need to be addressed by means of political, social, or development programs, and may also require post-conflict stabilization forces. Robert Gates, then-Secretary of Defense, in 2011 complained about NATO turning into a “two-tiered alliance,” where the first tier conducts “hard combat missions” and the second tier focuses on “soft humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks.”[6] However, these “non-combat” tasks provide important benefits to the United States, especially when non-conventional threats to NATO security fall outside the battlefield realm. Above all, “soft tasks” can translate into soft power and provide all-important political legitimacy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made an argument to that effect at the 2017 Munich Security Conference. It is up to Europe’s civilian leader, Germany, to make a more concerted effort to redefine the nature of the transatlantic bargain—in other words, determine what constitutes acceptable and useful NATO contributions.


Dr. Dorle Hellmuth is Assistant Professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America and serves as the academic director of the politics department’s parliamentary internship programs in Europe.She is a participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement.”

This blog post is sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).


[1] Naftali Bendavid, “Just Five of 28 NATO Members Meet Defense Spending Goal, Report Says,” Wall Street Journal, 22 June 2015.

[2] Niall Ferguson, “Dollar Diplomacy,” The New Yorker, 27 August 2007.

[3] Griff Witte, “Europe Reluctant to Boost Military,” Washington Post, 28 March 2014.

[4] “Fewer Dragons, More Snakes,” Economist, 13 November 2010.

[5] NATO, Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2009-2016), Press Release, 9.

[6] “Transcript of Defense Secretary Gates’s Speech on NATO’s Future,” Wall Street Journal, 10 June 2011.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.