Mattis Alarms NATO by Threatening to “Moderate” Commitment

Donald Trump’s defense chief warns that America might take a step back unless its allies spend more.

American defense secretary James Mattis and NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg deliver a news conference in Brussels, February 15
American defense secretary James Mattis and NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg deliver a news conference in Brussels, February 15 (NATO)

Donald Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, warned allies on Wednesday that the United States might “moderate” their commitment to NATO unless European countries and Canada raise their own military spending.

“Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do,” Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, told defense minister in Brussels.

America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense.

Which sounds reasonable, were it not for Mattis’ boss, Trump. He has called NATO “obsolete” and suggested trading sanctions on Russia — which have hurt European economies far more than the United States’ — for a nuclear deal. It looks like America is already “moderating” its commitment to the alliance under this president, no matter what countries across the Atlantic do.

“Bedrock”

Mattis did his best to reassure allies — before threatening them — calling NATO the “fundamental bedrock” of American security.

But Europe has yet to hear such warm words from Trump himself.

NATO exists not just because the West needed to defend against the Soviet Union, but because the United States did not want to see an independent European military power after World War II. If the Trump Administration doesn’t want the EU to militarize either, then the commitment needs to go both ways.

Obligations

Despite Mattis’ lamentations, NATO countries are on track to spend 2 percent of gross domestic products or more on defense by 2024.

Mattis doesn’t think that’s fast enough. He said states that are under the 2-percent norm should “accelerate” those plans, but that could be problematic.

Countries in the EU have a treaty obligation to keep their deficit spending in check — unlike America, which hasn’t balanced its federal budget in seventeen years. If European governments were forced to hike military spending immediately, it would necessitate either spending cuts elsewhere or tax increases.

Commitment

Some European defense ministers also argued that spending isn’t a perfect gauge for commitment.

Greece, for example, spends more than 2 percent on defense and has for many years. But it barely contributes anything to NATO operations.

Denmark and the Netherlands, on the other hand, spend a little more than 1 percent of their GDPs on defense, but they are actively involved in peacekeeping missions around the world.

Tension

Mattis isn’t wrong to expect allies to contribute more. His predecessors said the same time and again. Canadians and Europeans have been slow to listen.

But they are listening now. Plans are in place. Introducing an ultimatum only adds to the tension in transatlantic relations at the very time Europe and North America need to stand shoulder to shoulder.