Ahead of Jim Mattis' first official trip to Brussels as the new head of the Pentagon, NATO members were on edge to see if America's new Defense Secretary would push the same agenda which Trump had vocalized during his presidential campaign, namely that he would withdraw US support of NATO unless its member states boosted their spending in support of the international military organization.
To their disappointment, he did and in an ultimatum to America's allies, Mattis told fellow NATO members Wednesday to increase military spending by year's end or risk seeing the U.S. curtail its defense support, a move which AP dubbed was "a stark threat given Europe's deep unease already over U.S.-Russian relations."
“Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do,” Mr. Mattis said in his first speech to NATO allies since becoming defense secretary. “I owe it to you 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 went further than his predecessors in apparently linking American contributions to the alliance to what other countries spend.
“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,” he said.
Echoing Trump's demands for NATO countries to assume greater self-defense responsibility, Mattis said Washington will "moderate its commitment" to the alliance if countries fail to fall in line. He didn't offer details, but the pressure is sure to be felt, particularly by governments in Europe's eastern reaches that feel threatened by Russian expansionism.
The reason for Mattis' - and Trump's - and displeasure is shown in the chart below. According to the NATO charter, member countries must allocate at least 2% of their GDP toward the organization (among other reasons, so that each country can defend itself without relying too much on other members). However, of 28 NATO members, only five meet this requirement.
Which is why, as the AP reports, the entire alliance seemed to hang on Mattis' every word Wednesday. Officials crowded around televisions at the NATO meeting in Brussels to watch the retired general's initial appearance with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Defense ministers clustered around Mattis as he entered the meeting room.
Citing danger from Russia, Mattis told the closed meeting of ministers they must adopt a plan this year that sets dates for governments to meet a military funding goal of 2 percent of gross domestic product. He called the funding increase a "fair demand" based on the "political reality" in Washington, an apparent reference to Trump's past criticism of NATO as "obsolete" and his much-touted "'America First" mantra.
Mattis did not say how the United States might back away from its obligations to NATO members, though there are several steps the Trump administration could take short of refusing to come to the aid of an ally under attack. That would be an abrogation of its treaty responsibilities, but the United States could reduce the number of American troops stationed in certain European countries or raise the bar for what it considers a military attack.
Noting the threat posed by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, Mattis said: "Some in this alliance have looked away in denial of what is happening." "We have failed to fill gaps in our NATO response force or to adapt," he added.
In recent months, Trump has challenged the alliance to take on a greater share of military costs, even rattling European nations by suggesting the U.S. might not defend allies unwilling to fulfill their financial obligations as NATO members. Mattis didn't go that far, and Wednesday's focus appeared to be on simply increasing military funding if not fully reaching the target. Still, just that demand may prove to be very controversial as many European governments face hostility to more military spending, especially as their slow economic recoveries force belt-tightening elsewhere.
The United States is by far NATO's most powerful member, spending more on defense than all the others combined. It devoted 3.61 percent of American GDP last year to military spending, according to NATO estimates — a level that has somewhat tapered off in recent years. Germany, by contrast, spent 1.19% of its overall budget on defense. Ten countries commit even less, and seven — including Canada, Italy and Spain — would have to virtually double military spending to reach the target. Luxembourg would require a fourfold increase to get close. None of these spending expansions are realistic, absent a substantial increase in these countries' budget deficits, which could result in political instability at a very sensitive time, especially for Italy.
Along with the U.S., the other countries that do reach NATO's benchmark for military spending are Britain, Estonia, Poland and, inexplicably, debt-ridden Greece.
British's defense chief, Michael Fallon, said Mattis appeared to welcome a British proposal to create a road map for increased spending. "An annual increase that we're asking them to commit to would at least demonstrate good faith," he said.
One NATO official characterized the mood in the heavily fortified compound as tense and said allies were waiting to see if the message Mattis presented on Wednesday differed in tone from what Mr. Trump has said. In one important way, the defense secretary amplified the president’s previous statements. Though Mattis acknowledged “concern in European capitals about America’s commitment to NATO and the security of Europe,” he said allies must do more to reach their commitments to spend 2 percent of their G.D.P. on their militaries.
“No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of western values,” he said.
Asked about Mattis' ultimatum, NATO chief Stoltenberg said allies need time to develop plans. Many are already talking about increasing commitments, he said. "This is not the U.S. telling Europe to increase defense spending," Stoltenberg said, noting that allies committed three years ago already to increase spending over the next decade. He said: "I welcome all pressure, all support, to make sure that happens."
ACtually, this is the US telling Europe to increase its defense spending, at least until such time as the consequences of such a spending boost catch up with NATO, and Washington, and Trump relents on his demands.
Meanwhile, despite the sharpness of his demand, Mattis appeared to recognize Europe's worries and its leaders' desire for clarity on America's commitment to NATO. In a brief public statement, made while standing alongside Stoltenberg, Mattis called the alliance "a fundamental bedrock for the United States and for all the trans-Atlantic community."