Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with members of the U.S. mission at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 15, 2017.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with members of the U.S. mission at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 15, 2017. Photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley

Trump’s Empty Ultimatum to NATO

Defense Secretary Mattis just called for Europe to increase defense spending or else...what exactly?

President Donald Trump’s "ultimatum" to NATO is, at best, as clear as mud and, at worst, an empty threat that will harm U.S. security interests. It's a vague call for European member nations to increase their individual defense spending, which is the same thing four previous defense secretaries under President Barack Obama said every time they traveled to Europe for this thrice-a-year meeting of national security heads.

In Trump’s message, delivered by Jim Mattis during his first trip to Brussels as defense secretary, is a threat: pay up, or else. But what else, exactly? All Mattis said is that if European members states don’t do more, America will “moderate its commitment to the alliance.”

So, let me get this straight: Washington thinks Europe isn’t taking the threat to NATO seriously enough. It says pay up and do more. If not, Washington threatens to defend the rest of NATO less? How does that make America safer, again?

“NATO arose out of strategic necessity. NATO must now evolve out of strategic necessity,” Mattis said, according to prepared remarks. “We all understand that the alliance must transform to remain relevant.” Then he said that he “registers” Europe’s nervousness about Trump’s commitment to alliance and pledged the new president’s “strong support” for it.

Look, we’ve heard some version of this for years, if not decades. In his final trip to NATO in 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates really let ‘em have it amid fears that NATO would stop spending on or sending troops to Afghanistan. Before the Chicago summit in 2012, I wrote about the worry over NATO’s “paper-mache” commitments to Afghanistan. Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, and Ash Carter have since gone to Brussels and told the rest of NATO they need to increase defense spending. Here’s Obama, Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry pushing NATO in 2014 to open their arsenals and pocketbooks after Russia invaded Ukraine.  

Read more NATO Spending, in Two Charts
See also (reporting from Norway) A Key NATO Ally Looks Nervously at Putin—and Trump
Don't miss Trump Will Inherit the Biggest NATO Buildup in Europe Since the Cold War

But here’s the problem. Europe has decided what level of defense spending and posture it needs for its defense. Just like in Washington, every year, each country has a budget process or elections, and no matter how hard or forceful American defense secretaries shake their fists the needle has not moved that much. Here’s two handy charts on NATO spending.

NATO members so often are pressured to “reform” that they set up a permanent unit in Norfolk, Va., called Allied Transformation Command and led by a 4-star general or admiral. You know who held that job? Mattis. He knows plenty about NATO reform and relevance. On Wednesday, he cited Gates’ frustrations of 10 years ago and the reality of today. But he gave no clarity as to what Trump would do if NATO members do not do what Trump wants.

Trump's NATO "ultimatum" is as precarious a red line as Obama's was on Syria.

“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.

For several years, the favored path to a more efficient NATO had been “smart defense”: allowing members to determine what capabilities they can each afford to support and lend to NATO, so that everyone doesn’t have to possess and know how to do everything.

In 2014, former British Ambassador to the U.S. Peter Westmacott outlined the UK’s vision for NATO at a Defense One event. He said even smart defense requires commitments.

“Clearly, this requires all allies to pull their weight. That includes those member states whose defense spending has fallen below the agreed threshold of 2 percent of GDP,” Westmacott said. “Just a few months ago, people were asking why we even needed a Summit. ‘The Cold War is over,’ they said. ‘Europe’s security is assured. No need for a transatlantic Alliance.’ Nobody is saying that any more. On the contrary, there’s pretty much universal acceptance of the importance of the alliance today as in the past.”

Little has changed. Either Washington accepts what Europe wants for itself or Washington is going to have to fill that gap alone, through bilateral agreements to put additional American troops and equipment in place on its own, at a much costlier rate than if done as part of the NATO collective. That doesn’t square with Trump wanting Europe to pick up more of the defense tab.

The real concern here is that NATO’s effectiveness is being measured too much by its budget balance sheets.

The real concern here is that NATO’s effectiveness is being measured too much by its budget balance sheets. Since 9/11, NATO has shifted from being a standing defensive alliance into also an expeditionary one that deploys troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and across the Middle East and Africa to help fight terrorist groups. And in the past year, NATO has sent more American and NATO troops to Eastern Europe and created its first intelligence-sharing shop. Here’s “everything you need to know about NATO,” today.

The bottom line is Trump’s campaign fist-shaking somehow has to square with reality. Rhetorically, Trump is all over the place. He called NATO “obsolete” last March, then backtracked to say NATO was important, then said “obsolete” again in January. Now Mattis is, too, calling NATO a “bedrock” and then threatening to weaken it, all on the same trip.

U.S. generals don’t want to go against their civilian commander publicly, but you can’t find one who agrees that NATO is “obsolete.” Just the opposite: they give NATO robust support.

If all that this is about is defense spending, then Trump and Mattis have a tough fight ahead. They aren’t fighting internal Pentagon bean-counters and planners, or a single NATO budget office or NATO leader. They’re fighting 27 parliaments and the entirety of European electorate.  

But they’re also being watched by the entire senior U.S. military command who works day in and day out to keep NATO together, show a unified front to Russia (the reason NATO exists), and to the fight against Islamic extremist terrorism at it’s Southern doorstep and growing from within.

Trump's NATO "ultimatum" is as precarious a red line as Obama's was on Syria. If NATO countries call Trump’s bluff, then what? The U.S. still will honor Article 5, Trump already has said. Anything short of that would mean the U.S. would pull out of NATO  with less troops, funding, intelligence sharing, or some other capability. Those options only seem to weaken European security. And that weakens American security.