Mattis: NATO needs tough love

By Daniel DePetris

As Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence met with their European counterparts last week, they both delivered a hard truth that America’s friends needed to hear: it’s time for other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to start shaping up and pulling their weight..

“No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of Western values,” Mattis told his NATO defense colleagues in a private session. “Americans cannot care more for your children's future security than you do.”

This message was a good first start.  But if the past decade has given us any lessons, it’s that strong words don’t have much shock value if they aren’t accompanied by action.  If the Trump administration genuinely believes that NATO needs to adapt into a resilient organization that follows a more equitable burden-sharing model, Washington must focus on the kinds of reforms that will enhance transition burden sharing from an aspirational goal to a universal practice throughout the alliance.

Recent trends illustrate the complete and utter imbalance within the alliance between those countries that meet their commitments and the vast majority that are either choosing not to fulfill the NATO promises for domestic political reasons or are doing so with the confidence that they won’t be sanctioned by their peers.

Speaking to journalists on February 14, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reported that European members of NATO increased their defense outlays by 3.8 percent last year, amounting to roughly $10 billion in additional allocations from 2015 to 2016.  But as much as $10 billion may seem like a lot of money, it’s a menial amount given the wealth of Europe’s own collective economy — an economy that boasted a gross domestic product of $16.132 trillion in 2015. NATO-Europe spent only $235 billion of that $16 trillion economy on national defense, a paltry 1.4 percent of GDP that makes the 2014 Wales Summit guidelines on burden sharing look like an impossible dream. 

Just as important as the question of funding is how NATO member states choose to use that funding. The leadership of NATO, in other words, should go back to the drawing board and reexamine NATO’s priorities, which have ballooned to include new kinds of missions in areas of the world far from Europe’s borders. 

The alliance, for example, has fought shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. troops in Afghanistan for over fifteen years, advising the Afghan national security forces, assisting with Afghan army recruitment and training, and devoting a larger amount of resources on counterterrorism objectives — all of which the alliance’s founders would likely view as distractions. A decade and a half since NATO first went into Afghanistan, over 6,500 NATO troops remain in the country performing training and advising missions. Indeed, NATO agreed last summer to extend the training mission and allocate $1 billion per year in security funding to the Afghans until 2020, at which point NATO heads of state will once again debate whether to renew Operation Resolute Support into the next decade. 

Yet because the conflict in Afghanistan and the war on terrorism has gone on for so long, NATO has increasingly been distracted with out-of-area operations — missions that not only include training security forces in Afghanistan and supporting Iraqi soldiers against ISIL but leading regime-change initiatives in Libya that have bogged the alliance down. Out-of-area operations halfway around the world are increasingly forcing NATO to avert its eyes from the very reason the organization was established nearly seventy years ago: safeguarding Europe’s continental defense and acting as a strategic check on the Russians. 

NATO headquarters and defense ministers, including Secretary Mattis himself, should at the very least begin a conversation about whether the alliance needs to get back to its core mission of providing for the external defense of Europe.  Has NATO been served well by deploying ever further away from the European continent? As the major security contributor, the U.S. can force the issue on the other members.

Finally, the Trump administration could bring up a question that hasn’t been asked ever since the North Atlantic Treaty was established on April 4, 1949: is it time for NATO’s political leaders to modify the document in order to introduce some accountability on its members? 

As currently written, the treaty is devoid of any deterrent that would reprimand a member if it neglected to meet the two percent threshold on defense spending.  Without a procedure to keep members feet to the fire, a large majority have been able to skirt the commitments they have signed without concerning itself with the threat of being suspended from the club. In effect, many European governments are able to experience the security benefits of the world’s oldest military alliance without the costs of actually spending money on their own external defense. 

While it may seem like a radical idea in the foreign policy establishments in both Washington and Brussels, there may come a time when enforcement mechanisms need to be codified in NATO’s founding charter. This would serve the dual purpose of keeping a check on the kind of bandwagoning that has occurred over the past two decades while ensuring that burden sharing is a principle that is practiced rather than a meaningless talking-point. 

Secretary Mattis was only in Europe for two days, a short period of time to cover some very monumental questions striking at the heart of how NATO operates. The White House, however, will have more than enough time over the next four years to begin the difficult conversations that need to happen. Call it tough love to preserve the transatlantic friendship well into this century.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on February 22, 2017. Read more HERE