Countries failing to meet the 2% minimum GDP spend on defence are contributing to transatlantic tensions and leaving gaps in European security. The UK’s next government must help to address this shortage.

As a mutual defence organisation stretching across the Atlantic Ocean and across Europe, NATO requires members fulfil conditions agreed upon by its constituent states. One of these conditions is found within its common definition of defence expenditure, which includes the clause that its members spend a minimum of 2% of their respective GDP on defence, agreed upon by NATO Heads of State and Government in 2014. As of 2024, 23 countries are expected to reach that threshold, up from just three in 2014.

However, with 32 members in the treaty organisation, this means that nine countries are not meeting their agreed upon requirement – and it is causing a ripple effect to emerge across the security landscape both in Europe and beyond.

The conversation surrounding the defence spending of NATO members and their contribution to the organisation is not new. The Clinton administration lamented that the average NATO defence spending had fallen, while President Bush called for increased expenditures from European allies in 2002, a sentiment carried on throughout the Obama administration. To date, however, no American president has been as vocal a critic of NATO allies as Donald Trump, who has spoken about “delinquent…countries [that] owe us a tremendous amount of money from many years back.”. Now campaigning to return to the White House, Trump has gone so far as to refuse to defend or even encourage Russia to attack members who do not meet their defence expenditure commitment.
Needless to say, this lack of engagement and burden-sharing has caused decades of transatlantic tension.     

As one of the European countries that holds an exceptionally close relationship with the United States, exceeds its 2% GDP defence spending, and faces a General Election, the United Kingdom is in a unique position to pressure NATO allies not meeting their GDP commitment to do so. While positive trends have been experienced since 2014, and the outbreak of war in Ukraine may have encouraged many of these countries to re-adjust national budgets, the work remains incomplete. The phenomenon created by this disparity in commitment to the NATO project is not only influencing the upcoming American election, but is also weakening European security writ large – and other countries, such as Poland, Estonia, and Greece, are finding themselves needing to contribute additional funds to pick up the slack.

The UK’s next Prime Minister therefore must make efforts to help ensure that NATO partners are contributing to the sharing of the burden. Increasing defence spending to ensure NATO’s military readiness will ease transatlantic tensions, further improve relations with the United States, and further reinforce European security. Although the economies of non-contributing nations may suffer a greater financial cost, their efforts to increase their contributions will benefit all parties involved during a time of increasing uncertainty and fragility in international security.     

The United Kingdom would also need to prepare for a response from Moscow – the encouragement of bolstering NATO’s finances will certainly be unpopular in Russia, where the organisation is viewed as an existential threat. While a military response is extremely unlikely, risk assessors must remain wary of alternative, less conventional threats – such as cyber-attacks, or increased violence via proxy against British interests around the world. With Anglo-Russian relations exceptionally hostile at this time, however, this may be a reality facing the European security landscape regardless of the UK’s actions surrounding the encouragement of a stronger NATO.      

Bradley Tait is a recent MSc Politics of East Asia alumnus of SOAS, University of London, and co-leader of Agora’s London group.