Defense ministers from the NATO countries had a closed-door meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had quite a bit to say.
Like many of his predecessors, Mattis expressed frustration that most of the NATO countries are not meeting their pledged amount on defense spending. But Mattis did a bit more than simply express this frustration.
“No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of Western values,” Mattis said. “Americans cannot care more for your children’s security than you do.”
Currently, only five of the 28 NATO countries are spending the agreed 2% of GDP on defense: the U.S., the U.K., Estonia, Poland, and Greece. This means that countries like France, Canada, Italy, and Germany are not doing their part, forcing the U.S. to spend more than double the amount of all other NATO countries combined.
Finally, the subtle threat came when Mattis said “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.”
And there are a few ways the U.S. can “moderate its commitment,” besides refusing to aid an ally under attack. This includes decreasing the number of troops in certain European countries and raising the standards for what is considered a military attack.
With this coming while NATO figures out how to deal with Russia, after its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Mattis’ statements could not be carrying more weight. “Fellow ministers, when the Cold War ended, we all had hopes,” Mattis said. “The year 2014 awakened us to a new reality: Russia used force to alter the borders of one of its sovereign neighbors… While these events have unfolded before our eyes, some in this alliance have looked away in denial of what was happening.”
President Trump has been quoted calling the NATO alliance “obsolete” and made it a point during his campaign to make sure those other countries pay “their fair share.”
Perhaps this is the rude awakening that NATO needed to fulfill its commitment. One European diplomat was quoted saying “If you pardon my French, we got the message. Pay up or be” pushed, although the diplomat used a much more vulgar term.
This is exactly what Mattis needs to be doing, pushing these countries to stay true to their word. This being his first speech in front of NATO since becoming defense secretary, it’s a strong and promising start.