On his first visit to NATO headquarters, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday delivered a blunt warning to America’s allies, telling them they must increase military spending or the United States will pull back from its commitment to the transatlantic bloc.
Noting that one of his predecessors, Robert Gates, had called for increased spending by NATO allies a decade ago, Mattis told his fellow defense ministers: “The impatience Secretary Gates predicted is now a governmental reality.”
It was a stark warning delivered on behalf of President Donald Trump, who had previously declared NATO to be “obsolete” and raised doubts about whether America would remain committed to the common defense clause that is the bedrock of the NATO treaty.
“No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of Western values,” Mattis told the meeting, according to prepared remarks distributed by the Pentagon. “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do.”
He added: “Disregard for military readiness demonstrates a lack of respect for ourselves, for the alliance and for the freedoms we inherited which are now clearly threatened. 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.”
‘My second home’
The blunt threat cast an ominous cloud over a meeting that began with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warmly welcoming Mattis back to Brussels, where he had previously served two years as supreme allied commander for transformation.
Mattis, who had expressed his own steadfast support for NATO during and after his Senate confirmation hearing, had arrived at its headquarters with a positive message, declaring NATO to be “my second home.”
In a nod to Trump’s criticism of NATO during the presidential campaign, and his repeated demands that NATO countries pick up more of the financial costs of the alliance, Stoltenberg stressed that military spending by European allies and Canada had increased by 3.8 percent last year.
Mattis, in his brief remarks before the meeting, pointed to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014 as a turning point for international security.
“The events of 2014 were sobering and we must continue to adapt to what’s being revealed to us in terms of our security challenges,” Mattis said.
Clearly seeking to reassure allies of U.S. commitment to NATO, he said: “The alliance remains a fundamental bedrock for the United States and for all the transatlantic community, bonded as we are together. As President Trump has stated, he has strong support for NATO. And NATO is in the midst of transformation. It has always been adapting to the security challenges, this is nothing new. Perhaps the pace of change has certainly picked up a bit, but this is something we can deal with.”
Mattis added, “I do have confidence that we will prove once again that we can react to the changing circumstances. We have done so in the past and there’s every reason for confidence that we will move out purposefully together once again. I am here to listen to my fellow ministers, to have an open conversation among friends and allies about where we’re going and our shared level of commitment.”
Earlier in the day, Stoltenberg responded to reports that Russia had deployed a new cruise missile by stressing the importance of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which Russia may have violated.
“I will not comment on intelligence issues,” Stoltenberg told reporters in response to a question about the alleged Russian breach. “What I can say is that any noncompliance of Russia with the INF treaty would be a serious concern for the alliance.”
“The INF treaty is very important,” Stoltenberg continued, “because the INF treaty eliminated a whole category of nuclear weapons, weapons which could threaten Europe and NATO allies until they were eliminated by the INF Treaty at the end of the 1980s. Compliance with arms control agreements is of great importance, especially when it comes to treaties concerning nuclear weapons.”
Fight against ISIL
Mattis spent much of the day holding one-on-one meetings with colleagues on the sidelines of the formal conference.
U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said he met with Mattis for about 50 minutes and they agreed on the need for increased spending by the majority of NATO countries that do not meet the alliance’s benchmark of 2 percent of annual GDP.
Fallon said he and Mattis also discussed the need to bring senior leaders of the Islamic State to justice. With Western allies close to defeating ISIL in its remaining strongholds in Iraq and Syria, Fallon said he stressed to Mattis that it was of paramount concern to European governments to track ISIL fighters who might seek to return to their homes in Western Europe.
Fallon said NATO defense ministers expected the U.S. to soon release proposals for the future of the joint military campaign against ISIL.
Overall, Fallon said he supported the call by Mattis for quicker decision-making by NATO and for the alliance to upgrade its capabilities to respond to modern-day threats. “The threats are evolving more rapidly than the alliance,” Fallon told reporters.