Defense Secretary Tells NATO To Pay Up Or Else, Echoing Trump’s Campaign Rhetoric
They don’t calling him “Mad Dog Mattis ” for nothing.
During his first meeting at NATO as head of the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis issued an ultimatum, The Hill reports: Pay more, or the U.S. will have to “moderate its commitment,” he said.
“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 at the meeting, according to The Washington Post.
“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 said.
In his public remarks before the closed-door meeting, he called the alliance a “fundamental bedrock” for the U.S.
President Donald Trump repeatedly called NATO obsolete during his campaign, which rattled members of the alliance, causing them to wonder if he would come to the defense of allies if they didn’t carry more of the cost of their defense.
Only five of the 28 members of the alliance meet the goal of spending two percent of their gross domestic product on defense — the U.S, the United Kingdom, Greece, Estonia and Poland.
At a press conference on Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there’s going to be more focus on defense spending. He noted progress has been made in regards to this over the last year. In 2016, defense spending by Canada and European members rose 3.8 percent, amounting to an increase of about $10 billion, Stoltenberg said.
But at the meeting, Mattis warned that it is now a “government reality” that the U.S. will lose patience with members who don’t hold up their end of the bargain.
“No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of Western values,” Mattis said. “Americans can not care more for your children’s security than you do. Disregard for military readiness demonstrates a lack of respect for ourselves, for the alliance and for the freedoms we inherited, which are now clearly threatened.”
The National Priorities Project reports that military spending in the U.S. during the fiscal year 2015 was projected to account for 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending, a total of about $598.5 billion. By contrast, Social Security, unemployment and labor accounted for $29.1 billion, or three percent of all federal discretionary spending.
The five countries in the chart below are the only countries that spend NATOs recommended two percent of their gross domestic product on defense, according to The Washington Post.
Mattis is urging countries whose defense budget is two percent or more to encourage other countries to do so as well. And those with a plan to boost spending need to accelerate their plans. Countries that don’t have a plan to boost spending must do so, he said.
Mattis’ comments come at a time when NATO nations are confronting how to handle Russia on the heels of the country’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula as well as assessments by U.S. Intelligence that Russia hacked Democratic Party officials during last year’s presidential election, The Washington Post reports. The ongoing scandal brought about the resignation of Michael Flynn, former National Adviser, after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence regarding secret communications with Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak regarding sanctions the Obama administration had levied in response to the alleged hacking.
“Fellow ministers , when the Cold War ended, we all had hopes,” Mattis said. “The year 2014 awakened us to a new reality: Russia used force to alter the border of one of its sovereign neighbors, and on Turkey’s border [the Islamic state] emerged and introduced a ruthless breed of terror, intent on seizing territory and establishing a caliphate. While these events have unfolded before our eyes, some in this alliance have looked away in denial of what was happening.”
Some who attended the meeting had a different perspective, perhaps feeling it was more of a shake-down than a call to arms.
“If you pardon my French, we got the message. Pay up,” or face the consequences, one European diplomat said, using a more colorful, but unprintable term for how the U.S. might treat its allies. “If you take him literally, then the message is indeed that there’s no unconditional guarantee of security anymore,” the diplomat said, speaking confidentially in order to speak openly.
And not everyone thought this was particularly much of a departure from longtime U.S. attempts to increase its’ allies defense spending.
“It’s nothing new, to be honest,” Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said while being interviewed. “Mattis asked for milestones, so all of us will go home and work on them.”
Of all the NATO countries, Germany may experience the biggest effect from Mattis’s ultimatum. Should the country meet the 2 percent bar, it would boost defense spending to around $75 billion per year, resulting in a military that is larger than Britain’s. Which is perhaps a bit of overkill, when you consider that Germany has been traditionally pacifist for decades.
Mattis may be on to something here. Scaling back our huge military budget wouldn’t be a bad thing for the U.S., but the way he has approached other countries sounds a heck of a lot like “Pay up or shut up.” No wonder some NATO members are on edge.
And Trump has proven to be unstable on several occasions, including in his interactions with NATO. As NBC notes, Trump caused plenty of turmoil by saying he might not come to the defense of his NATO allies if they were attacked. But this is an agency that operates on a fundamental principal similar to a phrase made famous by the Three Musketeers, an 18th century novel by Alexandre Dumas: “All for one and one for all.”
NATO operates on the idea that if one of its’ 28 members is attacked, then all of its’ members are being attacked, so it’s no wonder that the countries within the alliance were upset. As part of its 67-year history, the agency adopted Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which operates on the core principle that members should mount a collective defense when attacked.
And the U.S. not honoring its promises could be devastating.
“If it becomes clear that the U.S. will not honor Article 5 commitments, or enough members believe that they won’t, then there’s a possibility to total disintegration,” said Tate Nurkin, a defense analyst at global consultancy IHS.
Trump and Putin’s mutual fondness for each other could also be troublesome for the alliance, especially since the Russian president maintains an antagonistic attitude towards the agency. Founded after World War II, NATO was intended to counterbalance the Soviet Union, and without it, all of the world’s alliances and battle lines would be obliterated.
“A world without NATO would be the unraveling of the West,” said Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “America would no longer provide the security guarantee it has given the world since 1949, when the treaty was signed, both in terms of nuclear and convention warfare. Europe would be completely vulnerable to any sort of Russian offensive.”
And since Russia is not part of NATO, Trump’s ties to Putin put a very dark spin on this. And that spin began when the President defended Putin after he was accused by U.S. officials of allegedly trying to influence the election to favor Trump by carrying out cyber-attacks against Hillary Clinton. When Trump won the election, Russian lawmakers applauded and Putin congratulated Trump.
“Putin has taken a huge gamble in openly supporting the Trump candidacy,” said Jonathan Eyal, international director at London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “It worked, and it will embolden the Russian leader to take even bigger risks in the future.”
And while Trump is a loose cannon, Putin is intelligent and calculating. Perhaps he is the fox to Mad Dog Mattis. But Putin is discerning enough to get this far. Who knows how far he’ll go?
Chart courtesy of NATO and The Washington Post. Photo by Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images