Mattis has the opportunity to hold NATO accountable

By Daniel DePetris

On October 3-4, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will be traveling to Brussels for the last NATO defense ministers conference of the year. According to the Pentagon, the meeting will concentrate on “reinforcing the need for equitable burden sharing, discuss implementation plans for key NATO summit outcomes, and reinforce the U.S. commitment to the alliance.”  The conference comes approximately three months after President Donald Trump and his fellow heads of state met for the annual NATO summit, a two-day event that concluded with a lengthy joint communique outlining a series of internal reforms and military readiness initiatives from all 28 member states.

Typically, the meetings among defense ministers are highly scripted affairs with a pre-programmed agenda. Ministers make speeches at a long table, reiterate for the umpteenth time the indispensability of NATO in a chaotic world, and take stock of reform efforts. Defense Secretary Mattis, however, should go beyond the conventional and propose a bold but common sense proposal that would both save the American taxpayer and ensure President Trump’s wholly sensible burden sharing concept is institutionalized.

When Mattis meets with his colleagues, he should table an idea similar to the European Union’s (EU)  Article 7, a procedure that holds all EU members accountable for backsliding on its democratic obligations. If a member state violates the principles enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, becomes increasingly authoritarian in their governing practices, or refuses to abide by EU decisions, Article 7 provides the European Council with an opportunity to censure the state in question.  And, if the state does not fix the underlying offense, the EU has the ability to sanction the government and suspend its voting rights. On September 12, the EU Parliament invoked the Article 7 process for the very first time against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose government has passed immigration and asylum laws the EU alleges are contrary to its founding principles. 

While Article 7 is certainly a flawed tool, it was crafted for a completely legitimate reason: to enforce the rules and regulations of the EU in an equitable way.

Inexplicably, NATO’s founding document does not have such a procedure. Indeed, the North Atlantic Treaty that established what has since become the world’s oldest defense alliance is woefully short of accountability measures. While the treaty codifies how an aspiring state can apply for membership, there is nothing in the document that spells out how a state already in the organization can be suspended or expelled for bad behavior.

In fact, once a state is inducted into NATO, it is a life-long member—whether or not it implements the alliance’s decisions or contributes its fair share to the collective defense of the transatlantic community. The only way a member-state can be removed from NATO is if it removes itself. It would be as if an exclusive, ritzy country club did not have the power to reprimand, fine, or kick out a member who consistently failed to pay his membership dues or stole towels from the clubhouse. 

NATO, of course, is not a country club. It is a defense alliance meant to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its members from external attack. Like all multilateral organizations, however, NATO is only as strong and capable as what its participants contribute to the alliance, whether this be dollars, manpower, intelligence support, or basing rights. And while it is true that non-U.S. military spending are slowly increasing as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and President Trump’s strong insistence on burden sharing, Washington still makes up nearly 74 percent of NATO’s defense expenditure. When only four out of NATO’s 29 members reach the 2 percent of GDP benchmark for military spending, something is seriously wrong with how the organization conducts its business.

It has been evident for a long time that NATO is in desperate need for an accountability mechanism, the purpose of which is not to punish a member but rather to provide all 29 states with an incentive to actually fulfill the commitments they agreed to. The status-quo—a vast spending and capability imbalance between the United States on one side and everyone else on the other— is enormously unfair to the American people and unwisely exacerbates NATO’s systemic problems.   

With a $21.5 trillion national debt that only increases with each passing day, an overextended military across multiple continents, and a list of domestic problems ranging from third-rate bridges, potholed highways, and poor mass transit systems, the United States can’t continue to subsidize one of the wealthiest regions on the planet. 

European members of NATO have the means to do far for their own security and the security of their region than what many are currently doing. The Trump administration should take a step beyond just issuing strong statements of protest.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on October 3, 2018. Read more HERE.