Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent comments that during his presidency America would only come to the aid of its Baltic NATO allies if they were deemed to have “fulfilled their obligations” to the U.S. turned heads not only in the U.S. but also in Europe. His comments puts a well-deserved spotlight on the serious and long-standing problem of defense burden-sharing between America and its European friends and allies. And Trump is far from the first American to call for Europe to increase defense spending. But U.S. allies may be doing better than Trump suggests, and the U.S. alliance with the democracies of Europe is about far more than just a financial calculation.
European defense spending is set to increase by nearly $8 billion this year, which begins to reverse the long downward spending trend in Europe that began after the Cold War. Perhaps most interesting, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—the three Baltic states about which Trump expressed skepticism—are currently some of the alliance’s most aggressive spenders. Lithuania’s defense budget is set to rise by 30% this year alone and will reach NATO’s target of 2% of GDP for defense in 2017. 
Meanwhile, Poland, another U.S. ally on NATO’s eastern flank, has launched an ambitious defense modernization drive that will see the introduction of, among other things, new submarines, air defense systems, helicopters and artillery. All in all, America’s European allies spend roughly $250 billion on defense each year. That is a far cry from America’s nearly $600 billion but substantially more than America’s potential adversaries, including China and Russia.
It is also important to remember that most NATO spending happens at the national level. NATO’s own budget is tiny, with only $2.3 billion for command structures and certain commonly held capabilities. The European members and Canada pay 75% of this bill. The U.S. contributes roughly $500 million, which comes out to nine cents for every $100 of U.S. defense spending. 


Trump is wrong to reduce America’s alliances to dollars and cents. Europeans also contribute in other ways to U.S. security. As a proportion of deployed forces, the U.K., Denmark, Estonia and Canada have all suffered higher casualties rates in Afghanistan. These casualties occurred while they were aggressively pursuing and engaging the Taliban and Al Qaeda in some of Afghanistan’s most restive provinces. All NATO members contribute to the U.S.-led coalition countering the so-called Islamic State, including with strike aircraft. And let’s not forget that NATO’s common defense clause has only been triggered once in the alliance’s nearly 70-year history—in response to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington—and not because a European ally was under assault. NATO AWACs planes helped patrol America’s skies for months after the attacks in order to detect and track any air threats to the American homeland.
Europe also serves American security interests simply by being where it is. U.S. bases in Europe continue to serve as forward platforms for U.S. deployments to the world’s hotspots. Norway hosts equipment and vehicles (including tanks) in secure caves for thousands of U.S. Marines, and the Marine Corps has drawn on the stock on numerous occasions for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Maintenance, repair and upkeep of the Marines’ equipment is paid for, as it happens, by Norwegian taxpayers.
Finally, it is important to remember why America remains the world’s only superpower. It is not because the U.S. has a big economy; the European and Chinese economies are both bigger. It is not because of America’s huge population; China and India both have bigger populations. And it is not because of nuclear weapons; Russia, China, France and others have those, too. America is a global superpower because it is a leader and organizer of alliances from Japan in the Pacific to Iceland in the Atlantic. That is what makes America great on the world stage, and no nation, friend or foe, comes even close to matching us. 
Our allies are certainly not perfect, and it is in our interest to keep them on their toes when it comes to defense spending. That needs to be the job of the next president. But the image of a U.S. president pulling out the financial ledger to check for recent payments as a first response to America’s allies being attacked comes across as neither strong nor smart. Abandoning our role as a leader of global alliances will not make America great again. 
Nordenman is the director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington.