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Why higher defense spending is no magic bullet for NATO as Trump takes aim

Analysis by Luke McGee, CNN

(CNN) — It has been a good week for NATO. Just days after US election frontrunner Donald Trump declared that he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to allies who don’t meet their defense spending commitment, a record number of NATO members declared that they would up their spending.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, said on Wednesday that 18 out of the 31 members of the military alliance would meet the 2% of GDP defense spending, meaning a record amount of money being spent across the alliance is expected this year.

Behind closed doors, officials are having muted celebrations. Of course, it is a good thing that more European countries are spending more on defense at a time the continent’s security faces its greatest threat since World War II. But privately, they also admit that this is only a starting point that needs to be built on considerably if Europe is serious about its own defense.

It’s first worth noting which countries have most dramatically increased their defense spending since the invasion of Ukraine. Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia all have one thing in common: they either border Russia or are in what Russia sees as its sphere of influence.

The reasons these countries want to bolster security is obvious, given their proximity to a belligerent. But with the best will in the world, these relatively small countries alone cannot guarantee their own protection and increased defense spending doesn’t automatically fix the gaping holes in European security.

It’s no secret that European countries fell into a rut of complacency after the Cold War and slept soundly on the assumption that if the worst were to happen, America would come rushing to their aid.

Trump’s well-documented comments about NATO and European defense spending woke them up from that slumber. The former – and perhaps future – president’s cold and blunt rhetoric is painful because at its core is an uncomfortable truth: Europe is nowhere near ready to defend itself without America.

Whether it’s smaller armies, insufficient weapons or dwindling ammunition stocks, there is virtually no one in the European security establishment who would deny the ball was dropped a long time ago and not picked up until very recently.

Spending alone doesn’t solve these problems and some NATO officials worry that a sudden splurge of money could make things more complicated if it’s not coordinated among allies.

“If everyone suddenly rushes out to buy a certain type of missile, for example, multiple buyers drive up the price,” one official told CNN.

Officials are trying to address this by negotiating multi-nation deals with arms companies. The example many point to is a deal struck earlier this year between multiple European countries to buy 1,000 Patriot missiles.

Inter-alliance diplomacy is backed into the deal: the $5.5 billion contract was awarded to a joint German-US venture. It was sufficiently vast that a factory is being constructed in Germany, creating jobs that should appease those in Europe who wince at sending vast amounts of money to America.

Another official told CNN that sending such large amounts of money to the US might prevent lawmakers blocking further aid packages for Ukraine. Their logic: if they can persuade lawmakers that large chunks of that money will end up being spent in American firms, they can spin a positive story to their voters.

Officials certainly see coordination as key to making this renewed interest in European security work efficiently. The snappily named New Nato Force Model, agreed in 2022, pre-assigns specific tasks to specific allies based on their strengths and ability to deal with certain scenarios.

Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director General at the Royal United Services Institute, says this isn’t just to increase efficiency.

“When you have a specific task laid out clearly, it becomes much harder to hide,” he tells CNN. “It will be easier to single out countries who are not pulling their weight, or spending their 2% in areas that don’t necessarily help the alliance directly. In the past it’s all been a little more opaque. Hopefully this will make the alliance and its spending more effective.”

Some officials at NATO HQ are more than happy to shame other allies not meeting their requirements.

“This has to be a floor, not a ceiling. Spending 2% now is great, but countries should also factor in the decades they haven’t been meeting that minimum requirement,” said a senior European diplomat. “This should be the start of a generational change. Those who continue to underspend or fudge their spending, shame on them.”

One of the complications with using 2% spending as a benchmark is that NATO allows quite a lot of things to be counted as defense spending.

“Pensions for soldiers are useful, sure, but they are not going to shoot a Russian,” a European security official told CNN. “Outside of new kit, maintaining old kit, staff, training and exercises, the rest should be ignored. Who cares if a mess hall serves Frappuccinos?”

Some officials believe that certain countries lean into what they see as less useful elements of defense spending because buying military equipment has been hard to sell to European voters for a long time. This is especially true at times of economic hardship and in countries that don’t feel under threat of invasion.

In that sense, it is little surprise that richer western European countries like Germany and France – with larger populations and a safe distance from Russia – have not increased their spending at the rate of smaller countries in the east.

It is important not to attribute Europe’s new ideas on defense changes wholly to Trump’s NATO skepticism – European plans for greater independence on security have been long in the works. But change has been gradual and every time Trump makes negative comments about NATO, it reveals an uncomfortable truth about Europe and its place in the modern world.

The West has changed. The old assumptions about America protecting the world and about the post-Cold War order no longer exist. Diplomats used to joke that modern Europe relied on China for cheap labor, Russia for cheap energy and America to pay for its security. None of those assumptions are without complications now and Europe has no option but to change with the times.

When it comes to defense, that change will be slow and painful. But it will be worth it, if countries don’t get bored and work together. If they don’t, Europe might find itself increasingly weak on all flanks and suddenly those countries that always felt safe could find themselves embarrassingly exposed.

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