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Burden Sharing
Mattis Asks NATO to Pay Up

At a closed-door meeting in Brussels with NATO defense ministers, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis echoed a common complaint from President Trump, insisting that NATO allies pay their fair share for defense. The Washington Post:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued an ultimatum Wednesday to allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, warning that if they do not boost their defense spending to goals set by the alliance, the United States may alter its relationship with them.

“I owe it to you all to give you clarity on the political reality in the United States and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms,” 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.” […]

“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. 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.”

It should be noted that Mattis’s stance is neither unprecedented nor unjustified; in fact, his remarks are just a harsher formulation of demands that previous administrations have long made of our allies. President Obama, for instance, publicly expressed his disdain for “free riders” and repeatedly pushed allies to meet their NATO-recommended targets of spending 2% of GDP on defense. Unfortunately, he had little to show for the effort. Although the UK upped its budget in 2015 to meet the mark, only four other NATO allies currently do: Poland, Estonia, Greece, and the United States itself.

If Trump does make allies ante up, it will be a significant achievement, but the climb is steep. Germany, for example, has lately been echoing Washington’s call for increased defense spending, but its projected budget increase for 2017 will only bring defense outlays to 1.2% of GDP. Reaching the 2% target would require a heavy lift of approximately 20 billion additional Euros per year—a politically toxic prospect in a country where even the smallest defense budget hikes remain unpopular.

Considering that many NATO allies spend considerably less than Germany, while sharing its public’s skepticism about contributing to self-defense, it would be no small feat for the Trump administration to change NATO’s culture and achieve more equitable burden-sharing. Secretary Mattis has staked out his opening position clearly; it remains to be seen whether NATO will respond in kind.

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  • Observe&Report

    If Greece, a country bled dry by the EU to force it to stay in the eurozone, can manage to meet the minimum 2% spending target, the others have no excuse.

  • gabrielsyme

    Mattis is offering one stick, but ejection from NATO needs to be on the table too.

    • Andrew Allison

      There’s no eject mechanism for NATO (ditto for the EU and eurozone), and changing that would require a unanimous vote which potential ejectees would clearly veto. The US could, and perhaps should, threaten to withdraw it the EU doesn’t want to defend itself. Meanwhile, let’s start bringing back some of the purely symbolic and most of the overhead.

      • gabrielsyme

        While there is no formal means of ejecting countries from NATO, there are practical means. It would, however, be useful if there were some mechanism for ejection of recalcitrant nations – or those which recklessly shoot down aircraft of a rival nuclear power.

  • Fat_Man

    Mattis was more diplomatic than I would have been. NATO is a dead horse. If we want to go anywhere, we will have to dismount.

  • Angel Martin

    One slight collection to the article. The two percent was not an imposed target. It was jointly agreed to by all the NATO countries.

    Canada is currently at less than one percent. Getting to two percent would be a 25 billion dollar per year increase.

    That’s big money, even by US standards.

    It’s not going to happen. Canadian politicians are great for rhetoric about the “international community” and “collective security”, but money talks and Canada’s NATO bullshit walks.

    (the Trudeau gov’t actually cut the 2016-17 Defence budget.)

    • Tom

      My recommendation would be simple: those bases we have in your countries? We’re going to move them to those allies who are actually demonstrating that they care about their own defense.

    • f1b0nacc1

      An excellent point regarding the 2% target. Most forget that the actual target was a compromise, the original proposal was much higher.

      Your observation regarding Canada is also an important one, though it shows the overall weakness of the 2% target versus some sort of meaningful case by case evaluation. Canada has been light on spending, but when it comes to a serious commitment of troops, they have always been reliable. Their forces in Afghanistan, for instance, were considered top-grade, and though their military is small, it has typically been reasonably well supported.

      This is the basis for why I think that the time has come to wind up NATO, and instead move to a series of bilateral treaties. Evaluating Canada’s contributions on the same basis as Germany’s, for instance, simply doesn’t work because each country is quite different.

      Either way, bravo to Mattis (and Trump) for holding the EUnick’s feet to the fire!

      • Angel Martin

        I’m not sure if a set of bilateral treaties or a successor institution to NATO would be best.

        What I do know is that people in the USA (Democrats as well) are increasingly unhappy with “allies” who criticize the size of the USA defence budget, and then demand to be protected for free.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Why wouldn’t bilateral treaties be useful?

          And yes, patience with the EUnicks has run out, time to cut them loose.

          • Angel Martin

            Bilateral treaties could work. And they have the advantage of defining who is actually doing the heavy lifting (ie the USA) and the treaty terms will reflect that.

            But here is the problem: For example, all of the Baltic states are threatened by Russia. If all they have is a series of bilateral treaties with the USA, and, say, Estonia is attacked, the USA is treaty obligated to do something but Latvia and Lithuania are not.

            That bilateraI treaty structure creates the incentive for all the other countries to stand aside and “hope the crocodile eats them last”.

            The other danger of an international system based on bilateral treaties is that a chain of bilateral treaties draws the USA into someone else’s wars.

            So, country A has a treaty with the USA, and also with country B. Country B starts a war with C, country A joins in by terms of treaty, and country C attacks A. Now the USA is treaty bound to come to the defence of A and is drawn into someone else’s war.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The problem that you describe (the Estonia example) is simply reality. If the US signs a treaty with Estonia while ignoring its practical limitations, that is OUR mistake. You are correct that a bilateral treaty does encourage non-involved states to stand off, but how really different is that from what we have now? NATO members that don’t believe that they have any pressing security concerns (Spain comes immediately to mind here) ‘free-ride’ on the rest, knowing that they can get away with it. This is hardly new, the problem was even worse in the cold-war years when front-line states often carried the burden for the rest.

            Bilateral treaties do not necessarily require American intervention (though many would), and can often explicitly exclude intervention when the war is between two states that we have treaties with, or when one state initiates conflict with another. This is once again, a matter of writing the treaty as something other than an open-ended commitment, a problem that we have with NATO right now.

            You raise valid concerns, but those are concerns with any sort of treaty arrangement.

    • Jim__L

      One question — what counts as Defense Spending?

      It seems to me that dual-use research and technology programs that support both military applications and civilian industrial applications could be a simple way to pump up the numbers. From a certain point of view, the Apollo Program was military spending. So was the Hubble Space Telescope.

      An *enormous* amount of military spending is about logistics, to take another example. Couldn’t funds also be dedicated to civilian use in times of peace, but reassignable to military use in times of war? Think, the Doge of Venice’s role in the Crusades.

      There are a lot of ways for countries to pull their weight.

      • Angel Martin

        Another question – what counts as GDP ?

        In order to meet the EU debt and deficit ratios, many of these countries arbitrary added to GDP to account for the “black” economy.

        Maybe if they reverse out that GDP adjustment, they can meet their defence spending commitments…

      • f1b0nacc1

        You raise an excellent point. Many European military establishments are simply giant (or not so giant…) jobs programs, with a real combat value of almost nothing. Since manpower is always the biggest part of the budget, a European state can easily ‘bulk up’ its GDP %tage with nothing more than a mass hiring of Eurocrats in Euniform (sorry, couldn’t resist)…

        • Jim__L

          Sure, that’s a risk, and it’s not the solution — but in some ways it’s a better problem to have than the problem we have now.

          After all, if NATO has regular maneuvers, this problem could be highlighted and addressed.

          • f1b0nacc1

            That particular problem has been highlighted repeatedly in the past, and simply ignored. Since there is no ejection mechanism in NATO, and the US has been unwilling (for geostrategic reasons, mostly invalid, but that is another matter) to withdraw, really nothing much ever changes.

            Keep in mind that I believe the right approach is to leave NATO, as it is unfixable. It served its purpose (more or less), and now it is time to put it out of our misery.

    • Dyllin Barnett-Lozano

      The end game has been clearly stated. Pay your fair share or defend yourself.

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