Stan Sloan, who in 1983 wrote one of the very best books about NATO says that the three oldest refrains in the West are: NATO is in crisis; deterrence is breaking down; and we need new thinking. All of which perfectly captures the furore about Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s putative threat to NATO allies.
The New York Times headline reads “Defense Secretary Mattis Tells NATO Allies to Spend More, or Else,” and the Washington Post, “Defense Secretary Mattis issues new ultimatum to NATO allies on defense spending.” NATO partisans have deluged my Twitter timeline complaining that while perhaps previous American officials may have complained about allies free riding, Mattis has transgressed by publicly threatening America’s allies, making our sacred vow of Article 5 mutual defense conditional for the first time. All of these complaints are misplaced. So it serves them all right that the tendentious schoolteacher in me is going to correct the record.
First, the Washington Treaty, as the NATO founding agreement is known, is not an immutable guarantee. While it absolutely does say that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” all that it technically commits the signatories to do in the event of an attack is “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” This is more of an up-to-and-including-the-use-of-armed-force than an automatic use of force guarantee. The NATO guarantee has always been conditional.
Second, American trepidation about being dragged into conflicts, especially those involving colonies of European allies, is clear from the delineation of geography in Article 6 of the treaty following immediately on. The United States isn’t newly worried about being taken advantage of by our NATO allies; that suspicion has worried American governments since NATO’s creation.
Third, Dwight Eisenhower would be turning over in his grave to know that 65 years after he testified to Congress in support of stationing U.S. troops in Europe, those troops remained. Eisenhower advocated U.S. troops in Europe until our allies regained the economic strength to provide for their own defense. That time came in the mid-1960s. I’m in favor of continued stationing in Europe of U.S. troops, but we need to acknowledge that the argument has changed. It’s now one of continuity not necessity.
What has occurred since the mid-1960s, when European allies regained the wherewithal to sustain military forces adequate for the defense of their territories, is that the United States has allowed more and more responsibility for security outcomes in Europe to accrue to us. Economist Mancur Olsen wrote a famous book in 1965 about the problem of free riders, and used the NATO alliance as the canonical example. In 1970, the Mansfield Resolution would have reduced U.S. troops in Europe by 50 percent by the end of the year unless NATO allies increased their defense spending (http://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/961). Literally every U.S. defense secretary since has pleaded, cajoled, darkly warned, and threatened allies with the dire reckoning to come if Americans continue to shoulder this much of the common burden in our alliance. Neither the aggravation nor the use of an ultimatum is new.
Nor was Secretary Mattis’ statement public; it was made in the confines of a private NATO meeting, though later widely reported in the press. Mattis went out of his way to both praise the alliance’s value and to honestly report public and governmental sentiment in the country he represents.
Secretary Mattis is not wrong when he says that Europeans should not expect Americans to care more about their children’s security than Europeans themselves do. In fact, the Secretary of Defense pirated that line from President Obama, for whom worked most of the people currently complaining about this devastation of history’s greatest alliance.
There are many things to be deeply worried about in a Trump administration. This is not one of them.
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