A Shaky Alliance: James Mattis, NATO, and Transnational Defense in 2017

Patrick Fox, Scarlet Staff

While attending a high-profile summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense ministers in Brussels on Feb. 15, the acting US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, presented his counterparts in the transnational alliance with a substantial ultimatum. His request? That every single member nation of NATO raise their military and defense spending to the assigned NATO minimum standard of two percent of each nation’s total gross domestic product (GDP).

In a thinly-veiled threat to his fellow officials, Mattis alluded to the fact that if this fiscal target was not met, the United States would be forced to “moderate” the support it gives to NATO. As of Feb. 20, Mattis still had not specified what he meant by moderating said military aid. At the conclusion of the summit, only five nations in the NATO alliance had met or exceeded the two percent minimum. These were the US, the UK, Poland, Greece and Estonia.

The recent statements by Mattis follow the party line of the Trump administration, enumerated in campaign promises of “hard stances” against both the allies and enemies of the United States. While on the campaign trail, Trump vaguely alluded to the fact that, if given control of NATO, he might not order the United States military to respond to an invasion of a member of the alliance. This would technically be a violation of the NATO founding charter, which stipulates that an attack on one member of NATO constitutes an attack on every member of the coalition. This clause of the charter has been the cornerstone of the organization since its founding, and it forms the bedrock of the ‘mutual defense’ philosophy that was the original motive for NATO’s founding.

NATO was founded while the Cold War was in full swing, and mutual defense consortiums were the norm. NATO has managed to outlast most if not all of its major counterparts and adversaries, from the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) to the Warsaw Pact. SEATO was a loose federation of Pacific Rim nations such Taiwan and Japan that were friendly to the United States; It dissolved due to member disagreements in 1977. The Warsaw Pact was founded by the USSR at the conclusion of the Second World War.  

The Warsaw Pact was composed of formerly independent nations in Eastern Europe such as Romania and Poland. Like SEATO, there were always questions of integrity relative to the member nations. In 1991 the pact was crippled by the end of its members’ communist regimes and dissolved as well. In this manner, NATO would seem to be a relic from an earlier time, when nation states faced off in the international arena and the threat of a globalized nuclear world war was not far off.  

With such poignant examples in mind, one is left to question the true efficacy of transnational defense organizations. They are often lopsided in terms of funding like NATO, or their founding principles are too unimaginative, like SEATO, which was in essence an excuse to unite North Vietnam’s neighbors against it. In an age when the battlefield is ruled primarily by interactions between states and non-state actors, the worth of a nearly sixty-year-old alliance designed to defend against Soviet Communist armies is highly questionable.

The isolationist stance taken by Trump and his campaign advisors on the topic of NATO falls in line relative to the prior policy decisions of the president and his cabinet. Trump’s travel ban aimed primarily at Muslims, as well as his ill-advised raids on Islamic State militants and al-Qaeda in Yemen, are simply a few examples of major policy gaffes that have drawn the ire of many across both sides of the political aisle during his first month in office. NATO was indeed founded by the United States, and like the United Nations, the US remains its primary benefactor.  

The heart of the issue in this case is the fact that Mattis is playing a dangerous game. In the zero-sum world of international politics, bluffs are seen as breaches of protocol and a disturbance of this delicate partisan ecosystem. By undoubtedly threatening his colleagues and counterparts with a lack of action, the Secretary of Defense is toeing a dangerous line. He is also sending a clear message to the US’ main adversaries, particularly the Russian Federation: the primary sponsor of one of the few remaining symbols of Western military power has lost its teeth and will not respond collectively in the event of an incursion by an invading force. While this stance may fall in line with the ill-informed political musings of a certain business mogul-turned-Commander-in-Chief, it is just that: ill-informed and unwise.  

Trump and much of the rest of his National Security Council could technically be given a pass, owing to the fact that they have little to no experience in matters of national security or international affairs. James Mattis, on the other hand, was an esteemed, high-ranking officer in the United States Marine Corps. It ought to be his goal to act responsibly with the full military power of the United States that is at his disposal, similar to when he was in charge of US Central Command. He receives no such license.  

Trump and his team are playing too fast and loose with the national security of the US and its allies. Hopefully these mistakes can be rectified soon by the administration in power in the US, lest America’s NATO allies be left to the wolves. Mattis must make a conscious decision: either continue the status quo in NATO or allow the alliance to dissolve under its own weight. Either decision carries with it serious consequences.