This blog post is part of a Carnegie Europe project that takes a critical look at the implications of meeting NATO’s 2 percent defense investment pledge.


In an alliance of 28 sovereign states—including the United States with its massive military—there are plenty of incentives for members to skate by with minimal effort in the knowledge that others are likely to pick up the slack. Sharing fairly the burden of defending the North Atlantic community is critically important, and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are right to seek a means to manage the free riding challenge.

Unfortunately, though, the method chosen by NATO member governments—the so-called 2 percent goal—doesn’t do a good job of measuring burden sharing, and it certainly doesn’t help quantify risk sharing. In fact, the 2 percent target is practically useless and ought to be tossed aside in favor of a more objective, more accurate measure of burden and risk sharing. Otherwise, the alliance cannot hope to manage these twin challenges.

As the Cold War ended, European NATO member states committed themselves to spending at least the equivalent of 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. For its part, the United States agreed to devote an amount equal to at least 3 percent of its GDP to defense. It was thought this formula would result in equitable burden sharing for allies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The #NATO2percent goal is not reflective of fair burden sharing.
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However, in reality the 2 percent goal is not reflective of fair burden sharing—or at least, not in isolation. The cases of Greece and Denmark provide the best examples of how this target fails in what it purports to measure.

The Greek government routinely spends more than the equivalent of 2 percent of its GDP on defense—one of only four NATO allies to do so in 2013. Therefore, as far as the 2 percent goal is concerned, Greece appears to be a model ally.

However, the Greek military remains largely unable to project significant force across time and distance. At the peak of NATO’s 2010–2012 surge in Afghanistan, Greece had about 160 troops there, or roughly 1.2 percent of all allied forces. By September 2014, that figure had dwindled to roughly nine troops, or about 0.02 percent of the 41,000 allied soldiers in the NATO-led force.

Even in nearby Kosovo, Greece contributes only 111 troops today, or roughly 2.4 percent of the soldiers there, far less than the 332 troops from NATO ally Slovenia, for instance, which has less than one-fifth of Greece’s population. In fact, the Greek military seems more focused on age-old rival Turkey than on major NATO operations.

Meanwhile, the Danes regularly fall short of the 2 percent goal, averaging just 1.5 percent since 2000. As far as NATO’s 2 percent target is concerned, Denmark is clearly a laggard. However, the Danes have a highly capable, deployable military. At the height of the surge in Afghanistan, Denmark had roughly 750 soldiers there. As major NATO combat operations came to an end in 2014, the Danes still maintained about 130 troops.

Over the skies of Libya, Denmark contributed seven of the 185 aircraft involved in NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in 2011. This wasn’t many more than Greece’s five aircraft, but when one considers that Denmark has roughly half the population of Greece, it becomes clear that the Danes bear a share of the burden larger than their 1.5 percent defense spending figure would lead one to believe.

Moreover, major operations such as the one in Afghanistan have made it clear to many allies that burden sharing is not enough. It’s one thing to spend an amount equal to 2 percent of GDP on defense, but if the forces those resources buy remain in garrison while others carry the load downrange, a state’s defense spending is of limited use in protecting common interests.

Hence, risk sharing is also a necessary element of fairly defending transatlantic security, and here again, the 2 percent goal proves inadequate. For example, in Afghanistan, Danish forces took on far riskier missions in the country’s southern region than did Greece or even many of the much larger allies. As a result, the Danes had one of the highest per capita casualty rates in all of NATO.

Meanwhile, Greek forces served primarily at Kabul’s international airport and in allied medical facilities in Afghanistan—important, necessary missions, to be sure, but not with the level of risk that Danish forces endured.

As GDPs fluctuate, the #NATO2percent target appears increasingly arbitrary.
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The cases of Greece and Denmark exemplify the futility of relying on the 2 percent goal as a means of measuring and hence managing burden and risk sharing. More broadly, as GDPs across the alliance fluctuate with changes in the business cycle—with or without corresponding increases and decreases in defense spending—the 2 percent target appears increasingly arbitrary. For instance, why not 3 percent—or 1 percent?

A far more effective way to determine which countries need to devote more effort would be for the alliance to develop a burden and risk sharing score. That metric should be based on several factors like the percentage of defense spending devoted to procurement and related research and development, a priority to which the alliance recommitted itself at its September 2014 summit in Wales. Additionally, the alliance ought to include contributions to recent and ongoing missions, such as those in Afghanistan or Kosovo.

Finally, NATO should also include force usability levels—that is, whether member state forces can be deployed across time and distance. In their Wales summit declaration, the allies pledged to meet such usability goals, defined previously as follows: 50 percent of each member’s overall land force strength should be deployable; and 10 percent of each member’s overall land force strength should be either engaged in or earmarked for sustained operations. But the allies failed to agree on making the usability data public.

Having a way of measuring whether and how NATO member states are sharing risks and burdens is very important. But the 2 percent goal is utterly ineffective in achieving this objective. To manage the challenge of burden and risk sharing, the alliance needs a more effective yardstick. If NATO is going to name and shame the burden-sharing laggards, which is essentially what it attempts to do by releasing annual defense spending figures, it may as well do so with accurate measures.


John R. Deni is a research professor with the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.