Can Mattis Back Up His NATO Threat?

If you needed reassurance that Mattis not just knows NATO but feels it, you got that in his remarks on Wednesday.

Jim Mattis delivered the goods at his first NATO defense ministerial as Secretary of Defense. There was a bit of whiplash during the first day as Mattis went from a reassuring public statement to a statement behind closed doors warning that the Untied States may “moderate our commitment” to NATO.

The public statement wasn’t bad — in fact, it was sober-minded, practical, plain spoken, almost lyrical in parts (as far as NATO statements go). It was also replete with references to historical touch points that are crucial to understanding the value of NATO, which Mattis clearly does. If you needed reassurance that Mattis not just knows NATO but feels it, you got that in his statement.

But what about this “moderate our commitment” bit? It was pretty clearly an ultimatum, though it was more nuanced if you read it in context. Mattis goes one step further than his predecessor Bob Gates did in his famous 2013 Brussels speech, which warned of a dark and dismal future for NATO if America’s allies didn’t do more. Essentially, Mattis said the politically untenable situation that Gates warned about had now arrived in Washington in the form of Donald Trump. It was intended as a motivational speech: Everyone pull up your socks or else. It’s just that the “or else” part is still vague.

Once you’ve drawn a red (or at least pink) line of this sort, it’s hard to walk it back. Some NATO allies will never reach the military spending target of 2 percent and few, if any, allies will show much progress by the end of the year. What then? Will the United States pull the trigger and moderate our commitment — and what would that even mean? We’re likely to face this awkward situation in the year ahead and we won’t have the luxury of being able to walk away from it, at least not without gaining a reputation as a paper tiger.

We would have more flexibility if Mattis had vowed to moderate America’s participation in NATO rather then our commitment. Messing with our commitment to NATO means weakening Article 5 of the organizational treaty, which I don’t think Mattis intends, whatever Donald Trump might have in mind. Moderating our participation would have opened up options such as reducing our common funding contribution or something else that doesn’t weaken our commitment to Article 5.

Perhaps there’s some wiggle room in defining “fair share” — after all, sometimes it’s not how much you spend but what you spend it on and how willing you are to use it that counts. But either way we have crossed the Rubicon – American commitment to NATO is on the table. Mattis’s warning of consequences will force U.S. allies to ask themselves a lot of questions; if they feel threatened, it may even cause some blowback. Threatening consequences may work with 5 year olds; sovereign states, not so much.

What’s clear is that the Trump administration will now have to follow through when it becomes apparent most Allies won’t meet the 2 percent any time soon. Whether anyone has thought through what we will when our allies don’t measure up is another question.

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