As prominent US media and political figures warned that he might dismantle NATO, President Trump wrapped up the summit by bragging that he had convinced allied members to spend more on the military. We speak to Bill Hartung, Director of Arms & Security Project, Center for International Policy
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
Heading into this week’s NATO summit, the prevailing fear among prominent U.S. media and political figures was that President Trump could possibly destroy the decades-old military alliance. But Trump went in a different direction. He ended the summit Thursday claiming he has gotten NATO members to agree to a longtime U.S. demand: that they spend more on their militaries.
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DONALD TRUMP: Tremendous progress has been made. Everyone’s agreed to substantially up their commitment. They’re going to up it at at levels that they’ve never thought of before. Prior to last year where I attended my first meeting, it was going down; the amount of money being spent by countries was going down, and down very substantially. And now it’s going up very substantially, and commitments were made. Only five of 29 countries were making their commitment, and that’s now changed. The commitment was at 2 percent. Ultimately that will be going up quite a bit higher than that.
AARON MATE: Now, some NATO members are already disputing Trump’s claim that they’ve committed more. But regardless, lost in the anxiety over Trump’s commitment to NATO is whether or not this military spending he’s bragging about would be a positive thing, and how that money could be spent otherwise.
Well, joining me to discuss is Bill Hartung, director of the Arms Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Welcome, Bill. If we could start just by your thoughts on this question of does NATO need to be spending so much money on the military, as President Trump claims?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yeah. As usual, Trump’s numbers are all off. But as you said, the real question is: does NATO need to spend more? And the answer is a resounding no. If you look at the Stockholm Peace Research Institute stats, NATO’s spent $900 a year to about $66 billion by Russia. And even if you take out the United States, the top four European spenders outspend Russia two to one. So if it’s about money plenty, there’s of money sloshing around in NATO. There’s no need to increase it.
But even beyond that, we’re not in the Cold War anymore. It’s not an issue of blocking Soviet tanks coming across the border, or having, you know, aerial dogfights, or so in the sense that there’s competition, it’s a political; perhaps there’s some cyber issues. Nothing to justify a huge increase in military expenditure. And if Trump wants to save money, what he really needs to do is end the U.S. wars around the world, because that’s where the money is going. If that’s his concern, it’s not about getting NATO to spend more; it’s about the United States spending less on this global militarized foreign policy.
AARON MATE: In terms of Russia, just to throw out some more figures, the recent Pentagon budget that was pushed through Congress, the, its increase from last year is more than the total Russian military budget combined. Right? And Russia, meanwhile, has been reducing its military spending in recent years, if I have that correct.
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, that is correct. I mean, there’s questions that can be debated about Russia’s role in Ukraine, and its connections with right-wing parties in Europe, and so forth. But as I said, if there was a spending race, Russia is far behind. It doesn’t even seem to be trying to compete. So you could pour all that money into Europe. It would probably mean more purchases of U.S. weapons, like the F-35. It would probably mean that Russia, perhaps, would decide to increase its spending, or spend more on nuclear missiles, or otherwise respond to what it might perceive as a new threat. But it certainly wouldn’t make anybody safer.
AARON MATE: In terms of the U.S. spending on the military, as I mentioned, the latest budget was an increase over last year. What are some of the things that we could be doing with that money instead?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, just the increase alone from 2017 to the new proposed budget this year, that would be enough to buy two whole State Departments. So you could double the budget of the State Department. You’d still have $40 billion left over to invest in nutrition, and transit, and cultural programs. If you cut it by a third, you could meet all of the infrastructure needs that America. Transit, roads, alternative energy over the next 10 years. So it’s a huge amount of money that’s being wasted. And you know, people forget that Donald Trump claimed he was going to be the infrastructure president. He’s put no money into that. He hasn’t fought for it. His infrastructure program basically is pumping up the Pentagon, which is the least effective way to build your economy.
AARON MATE: So in terms of spending money on weapons, President Trump is in Britain right now, meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May. After he leaves next week there’s going to be a military trade show called The Farm Bureau air show in the UK, and Trump is sending not defense officials, as far as I understand, but actually his top trade official. And I’m wondering your thoughts on the significance of that.
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well usually there’s at least a little bit of cover for the fact that they used these trade shows as an attempt to sell U.S. weaponry. There’ll be some defense officials, there’ll be some discussions with foreign militaries. Buy Trump’s sending Peter Navarro, who’s his trade adviser, who’s behind all the different economic policies, including the tariff policies. And so that’s just a signal to say we’re only about selling. And that’s what we’re here to do. And security, other issues related we’re not really interested in. I think that’s the main signal that is sent. And of course at the NATO meeting, as he always does, Trump was bragging about the superiority of U.S. weapons. He talked about arms sales when he met with the Saudi crown prince in the White House. He talked about it when he visited Japan. So among other things, Trump is America’s number one arms salesman.
And so sending Navarro, I think, is part and parcel of that. But it means that there’ll be very little discussion of any kind of broader issues of security, or even economic policy. It’s going to be sell sell sell.
AARON MATE: OK. So speaking of economic policy and sell sell sell, at the same time as he is trying to ramp up U.S. military sales around the world, he is engaged in this trade war; imposing tariffs on many countries, including key U.S. allies who he wants to sell weapons to. Is there a major contradiction there?
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes. I think he, if you’re going to insult countries and undercut their economies, it’s going to be harder for them to turn around and buy your weapons systems. Or anything else, for that matter. And we’ve seen on a small scale what’s happened here before this round of tariffs. There was a dispute with Canada over sales of civil aircraft, and they tried to slap big tariffs on Bombardier planes. Canada turned around and canceled a $5 billion purchase of U.S. F-18 combat aircraft. So you may see more of that as this trade war escalates. You know, U.S. companies put a lot of money into building these weapons. They’re also related to building defense relationships with the United States. So it’s going to be a tension in the policy. In some cases it may diminish Trump’s ability to sell arms. In other cases the deals may go through. I mean, certainly places like Saudi Arabia are going to still buy in huge amounts, as the United States backs them in their brutal war in Yemen.
AARON MATE: Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Thank You.
WILLIAM HARTUNG: Thank you.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.