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.