Mattis Tells NATO to Pay Up or U.S. Will Pull Back—Why Not Both?

Mattis meets with defense chiefs in Brussels.


Defense Secretary James Mattis delivered a warning about military spending to fellow defense heads at a NATO meeting in Brussels that focused on "ensuring NATO's strength and flexibility in the face of evolving challenges."

"No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of western values," Mattis said according to Bloomberg. "Americans cannot care more for your children's future security than you do."

"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 told the defense chiefs, according to NBC News. "America will meet its responsibilities, but 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."

Mattis received support from some of the other chiefs in attendance. Ursula von der Leven, Germany's defense chief, called it a "question of fairness" that the European members of NATO all contribute and "don't excessively rely on the Americans."

Germany was estimated to have spent 1.19 percent of its GDP on defense in 2016—well short of the 2 percent NATO guideline. Just five countries hit at least 2 percent of GDP in military spending: Poland at 2 percent, Estonia at 2.16 percent, the United Kingdom at 2.21 percent, Greece at 2.38 percent, and the United States at number one with 3.61 percent.

The defense secretary for the United Kingdom, Michael Fallon, also backed Mattis' comments, telling his colleagues Congress would not continue to "tolerate unequal burden-sharing." He told reporters afterward that a commitment to an annual increase would "demonstrate good faith."

Mattis said he wanted NATO to come up with a plan to get members to the 2 percent GDP goal that had measurable milestones. He also took the time to focus on the threat posed by Russia, telling fellow defense chiefs that while the U.S. remained open to "opportunities to restore a cooperative relationship with Moscow" it would not "surrender the values of this alliance nor let Russia, through its actions, speak louder than anyone in this room." Former Lt. General Michal Flynn resigned as national security advisor earlier this week in the midst of a controversy over phone calls to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. which are being investigated by the FBI.

But the U.S., and NATO, ought to contemplate a moderation of American commitment to NATO. An over-reliance on U.S. military spending and leadership, after all, has exposed NATO Europe to the risk identified by Mattis. Were Europe as committed to continental defense as it has been to fiscal, monetary and political union, it would not be in as vulnerable position vis a vis Russia. A commitment to its own defense might have even helped with the wider project of unity by grounding it in something other than the self-absorbed vision of bureaucrats in Brussels. Despite the future of the European Union being in question lately, it may not be too late for Europe to renew its project of integration through taking responsibility for its defense. The U.S. could help but scaling back its commitments as Europe shoulders more of its own.