- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a fuzzy ultimatum to NATO allies Wednesday, demanding they shoulder the burden of defense more but failing to say what the White House would do if they don’t.
“America will meet its responsibilities. But if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this Alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense,” Mattis said in a speech to open a meeting of NATO defense ministers.
The comments made NATO officials sit up. The mood inside NATO is “scared and confused,” a NATO official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity. But “no more confused than usual,” the official added, citing broad European concerns over U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump has repeatedly questioned NATO’s validity, even calling it obsolete during his presidential campaign. Mattis, who previously served as NATO’s supreme allied commander transformation, didn’t go that far on Wednesday. But he scolded NATO members for not taking more responsibility.
“Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do,” Mattis said. “Disregard for military readiness demonstrates a lack of respect for ourselves, for the alliance, and for the freedoms we inherited,” he added.
Currently, only five of the 28 alliance members meet the NATO requirement of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense: the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, and Greece.
In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates blasted allies for not paying their fair share. But Mattis “upped the ante” in his remarks, said Jim Townsend, who up until January was the Pentagon’s top NATO policy official. “There’s no doubt that he issued an ultimatum,” Townsend said. But what’s unclear is what exactly the United States would do if allies didn’t meet that ultimatum.
The Pentagon declined to clarify Mattis’s remarks.
“If you take him literally, then the message is indeed that there’s no unconditional guarantee of security any more,” one European diplomat told Washington Post. Not everyone agreed. “It’s nothing new, to be honest,” Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said. “Mattis asked for milestones, so all of us will go home and work on them,” she added.
Wednesday’s meeting marked the first opportunity for NATO allies to meet with a Trump cabinet official and gauge the administration’s stance on Russia.
Allies “desperately needed clarification on where the United States stood” on Russia, now that Trump was in office, Townsend said. What they got — Mattis’s warning coupled with seeming contradictory reaffirmations of U.S. guarantees to NATO — may have been yet another a mixed signal for countries desperate for clarity from Washington.
Mattis’s trip came on the heels of Michael Flynn’s resignation as Trump’s national security advisor, and the ensuing chaos left in its wake. But Mattis insisted it didn’t overshadow his mission to NATO.
“Here’s the bottom line, ladies and gentlemen: I am brought in to be the secretary of defense,” he told reporters on a plane en route to Brussels before the meeting Wednesday. “Frankly, this has no impact. Obviously. I haven’t changed what I am heading there [to NATO] for. It doesn’t change my message at all.”
Vice President Mike Pence is also scheduled to visit Brussels and meet with NATO leaders on Monday.
Photo credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images