Donald Trumpâ€™s classless lecturing of NATO leaders on the need to increase defense spending, and his subsequent refusal to endorse the allianceâ€™s collective defense policy (â€œan attack on one is an attack on allâ€), should serve as a warning to New Zealand policy makers. Coming after his calls for Japan and South Korea to increase their defense spending less their security ties with the US be reviewed, Trumpâ€™s attitude towards US security alliances is a sobering reminder that New Zealand is not immune from his bullying.
Trump specifically wants US security allies to spend 2 percent of GDP on â€œdefense.â€ The US currently spends 3.6 percent of GDP on military expenditures, including 14.5 percent of the federal budget. EuropeanÂ Union countries spend 1.4 percent and 4.1 percent of GDP and central administrative expenditures, respectively, on defense. Overall, NATO countries spend 1.5 percent of GDP on their militaries, with only five member states (including the US) spending two percent or more. As for other US security partners, Australia spends two percent (and envisions future spending increases), South Korea spends 2.6 percent, Japan spends one percent and New Zealand spends 1.2 percent of GDP on defense (the same as Germany).
The 2 percent of GDP benchmark for individual member contributions to NATOâ€™s defense was an aspirational goal first raised during the Cold War and periodically reaffirmed thereafter. In February 2017 US Secretary of Defense James Mattis made the goal a requirement extended to non-NATO US security partners as well, warning that the US â€œwould moderate its commitmentâ€ to them if they did not meet the threshold by the end of this year. This runs counter to the overall trend of the past decade, where with the exception of frontline democratic states like Estonia, Poland and South Korea, military expenditures have fallen throughout the liberal democratic world, terrorism notwithstanding (which cannot be fought by conventional military means anyway). In fact, the only regions that have seen increases in military spending over the last decade are the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, all active conflict zones dominated by authoritarian regimes.
Should Russia continue to encroach on NATO borders or hostilities between the West and China and/or North Korea increase, that might change, but the truth is that unlike the US most liberal democracies put the welfare of their subjects before war preparations, which means that they largely spend more on health, education and welfare as a percentage of central government budgets than the US does, while the US, in turn, spends more on “defense” than most of its democratic counterparts and, in fact, most authoritarian states as well (China, for example, spends 1.9 percent of GDP and 16 percent of central government expenditures on “defense”, while Russia spends 4.9 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively).
Contrary to what some US pundits allege, there is no free-riding and nothing parasitic about the contributions to collective defense of most NATO members and other US security partners–they are simply paying the amount that their priorities deem to be appropriate. The US wants to maintain its global military dominance in a world of rising new and old powers, so it spends more and wants those in its alliance networks to do likewise. But that does not mean that the latter could or should do so given their domestic priorities and threat environments. The â€œone size fits allâ€ approach to collective defense does not account for the particular circumstances of individual countries, something that Mr. Trump fails to understand.
This is why New Zealand needs to prepare for pressure from the Trump administration on matters of mutual security. The Wellington and Washington bilateral agreements bind New Zealand to the US as a military ally in everything but name only. It is a first tier US intelligence partner given its membership in the â€œ5 Eyesâ€ signals intelligence collection alliance that includes Australia, Canada, the UK. It is a NATO associate. It is therefore likely that the US will demand that New Zealand â€œlift its gameâ€ to the 2 percent of GDP mark, especially given that Australia already has.
Trumpâ€™s nominee to be ambassador to New Zealand is a portent of things to come. Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, an unremarkable politician except for the fact that he once posed nude for a ladyâ€™s magazine and is an open advocate of torture as an interrogation technique, is slated to take up the post in Wellington by the end of this year, pending Senate confirmation. Given Mr. Trumpâ€™s advocacy of torture and his musing about re-opening the CIA-operated extraordinary rendition/black site kidnapping and secret detention program, it is possible that Mr. Walker will be the bearer of bad news in the form of demands for New Zealand to increase security budgets to US satisfaction and toe the new line when it comes to extrajudicial approaches towards terrorism.
This pressure must be resisted. Although it can be argued that New Zealandâ€™s strategic position and threat environment may not readily accord with its current security posture or spending (for example, by having an Army-centric military and limited blue water patrol capability in a maritime nation), it is also clear that New Zealandâ€™s security interests do not uniformly coincide with those of the US and more importantly, the Trump administration approach to fundamental norms such as the Laws of War and Geneva Convention. Moreover, New Zealandâ€™s trade position is more vulnerable than that of its larger military partners, which makes blind compliance with US security demands risky when these involve antagonizing economic partners such as China.
When the subject of the two percent threshold was raised earlier in the year, former Defense Minister Gerry Brownlee dismissed the notion that New Zealand would raise its spending in response to US demands. It remains to be seen if his assurances will hold over the longer term. As it stands, New Zealandâ€™s spending on intelligence and security, including the NZDF, has increased over the last decade and is high when compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. Current spending priorities are on cyberdefense, counter-terrorism and equipment upgrades for conventional forces. These can all be addressed for less than two percent of GDP.
In the wake of Mr. Trumpâ€™s remarks to NATO and the G7 Forum, German Chancellor Andrea Merkel warned Europeans that they could no longer rely on the US on matters of security and trade, and that they needed to look to themselves when determining their fate. New Zealand needs to heed that advice. One way of demonstrating resolve in the face of US pressure is to declare Mr. Walker persona non grata in light of his support for torture and the emerging Trump security doctrine. The opportunity to do so arrives next week in the person of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who will be on his first official visit to NZ. Declaring Â Mr. Brown unwelcome may result in some diplomatic discomfort, but if New Zealand is to maintain its reputation as an honest broker and independent actor in international affairs, it is a small way of demonstrating that when it comes to its security the price of partnership is not up for negotiation.
A shorter version of this essay appeared as an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald, June 2, 2017.