Mattis Is Mostly Right on NATO
In his first speech to NATO defense ministers as the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis suggested that, if Allies do not start contributing more by the end of the year, the United States might “moderate its commitment.” While the timing is less than ideal, given growing concerns about the Trump administration posture towards Russia, this message is a long time coming.
Mattis, who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation in his penultimate assignment as a Marine general, assured his audience that, "The alliance remains a fundamental bedrock for the United States and the trans-Atlantic community, bonded as we are together." But he followed that with a rather pointed caveat: “I owe it to you all to give you clarity on the political reality in the United States and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms,” Mattis said. “America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to the alliance, each of your capitals needs to show its support for our common defense.”
He bluntly declared, “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do” and stated that it is a "fair demand that all who benefit from the best defense in the world carry their proportionate share of the necessary cost to defend freedom."
While American officials expressing their exasperation with free-riding has been a feature of NATO politics going back to the 1970s, it has certainly escalated in recent years.
Perhaps most famously, Bob Gates issued a blistering valedictory speech to NATO in his final days as defense secretary declaring that his longstanding fear of a “two-tiered alliance” was “no longer a hypothetical worry.” He bluntly called out “those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership – be they security guarantees or headquarters billets – but don’t want to share the risks and the costs,” declaring it “unacceptable.”
Gates noted that he was but “the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending.” He argued that Americans have reluctantly borne a disproportionate share of the burden because of the lingering memory of the two world wars and the reality of the Cold War but that, as those fade into history, “there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Gates ended his remarks by noting that, while he had “sketched out” a “real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance,” he did so as a wake-up call to avert that reality. “Such a future is possible,” he declared, “but not inevitable.”
His successor, Chuck Hagel, would issue a similar warning three years later at the Warsaw Summit. He lamented that “many nations appear content for their defense spending to continue declining” even though “Europe still lives in a dangerous world. A world where peace must still be underwritten by the credible deterrent of military power.”
President Obama added while America's commitment to Europe was unwavering, "every NATO member has to do its fair share," committing "a proportional amount" of resources to the common security. Defending against future threats is "going to require every NATO member to step up." He noted that "We have seen a decline steadily in European defense spending generally" and exhorted "that has to change."
While there have indeed been some modest increases in spending in response to these calls—and, more importantly, the heightened sense of threatened security brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the basic situation remains essentially unchanged. Despite a longstanding commitment to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, only five of the Alliance’s 28 countries currently meet that threshold: the United States, Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia, and Poland. Among those falling short are wealthy countries: France (1.78 percent), Turkey (1.56), Germany (1.19), Italy (1.11) and Canada (.99).
It should not come as a surprise, then, that the long-warned-about American fatigue has finally arrived. Indeed, Mattis, who attended Gates’ 2011 speech as SAC-T, noted in Wednesday’s remarks that the future Gates warned of was now a “governmental reality.”
We should be clear that this new reality is not a threat to walk away from an alliance that has served us well for nearly seven decades. While Donald Trump made some inflammatory remarks about NATO on the campaign trail and even called it “obsolete” a few days before his inauguration, he has since moderated his tone, declaring, "We strongly support NATO." His follow-up plea that "NATO members make their full and proper financial contributions” was, as we have seen, routine.
I share the concerns of my fellow Atlanticists that the Trump administration risks overplaying its hand. The desired end state must be to bolster NATO by turning more members into security contributors, not fracture it.
The Article 5 commitment at the heart of NATO that an armed attack against any member “shall be considered an attack against them all” must remain sacrosanct. And, it is worth reminding ourselves, the only time it has been carried out was when the other Allies came to American aid in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Still, that guarantee is much more valuable when backed by 28 countries pulling their weight rather than a handful.
As Gates noted in that famous speech six years ago, “true friends occasionally must speak bluntly with one another for the sake of those greater interests and values that bind us together.” Bluntness must not, however, give way to bluster. Which is certainly a danger with this new administration, headed by a novice president prone to early-morning Twitter fights with those who annoy him.
As Carleton political scientist Steve Saideman, co-author of NATO in Afghanistan, notes, spending as a percentage of GDP is not the only measure of contribution to NATO. Despite its woeful economic contribution, his own adopted country of Canada lost 158 dead supporting the American-led war in Afghanistan, which was more than any NATO member other than the US or the UK. And, on a per capita basis, tiny Denmark and Estonia lost more than any other ally.
Additionally, as Jim Townsend, who served eight years as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO under President Obama (and a one-time Atlantic Council colleague), rightly points out, the flexibility and logistical capabilities provided by European basing rights is a tremendous contribution to not only the Alliance but also American power projection.
Additionally, decades of working together have brought enormous advantages in command and control and interoperability that must not be lost.
Mattis’ opening gambit struck the right tone, simultaneously reassuring Allies of American commitment to NATO while declaring that patience for free-riding has reached its end. Still, the political and fiscal realities in most NATO capitols are such that expecting a radical policy shift in a mere ten months is unrealistic. Julianne Smith, who had a major hand in writing Gates’ 2011 speech as Principal Director for European and NATO Policy, suggests 2020 as a more realistic deadline. That strikes me as more tenable.
Regardless, decades of begging the Allies to pick up a greater share of their own defense have simply not worked. It is well past time for a new approach.