Mattis’s NATO Warning

Trump’s defense chief offers tough love on military spending.
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U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 16.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 16. Photo: Reuters        

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had tough words about burden-sharing for his NATO counterparts in Brussels on Wednesday. The message was salutary, and the retired general was the right person to deliver it. But prepare for a tsunami of claims from Washington’s newly minted Russia hawks that the warning was another sign that President Trump is seeking to undermine the Western Alliance.

“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,” Mr. 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.” All NATO allies, he went on, must fulfill the pledge to spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense.

Mr. Mattis was right on the policy merits. Currently, only five of 28 NATO states—Britain, Estonia, Greece, Poland and the U.S.—meet the commitment. American spending, at 3.6% of GDP, amounts to about two-thirds of all defense expenditures in the alliance.

Top spending hall of shamers include Germany (1.2%), Denmark (1.2%), Italy (1.1%) and Spain (0.9%). Neglect has eroded many of these countries’ capabilities, “in some cases to the point of irrelevance,” as one NATO insider recently told us. Aggregate alliance spending went down by 1% in 2014 and barely ticked up in 2015—even as Vladimir Putin carved up Ukraine and the crises in Syria and Libya flooded Europe with more than a million migrants and refugees.

The warning is no surprise to Berlin, Paris and other major allied capitals. As the retired general noted in his speech, Democratic and Republican administrations have been saying the same thing for at least a decade. The Trump Administration is different mainly in putting the point more forthrightly.

That reflects the growing frustration of American voters with NATO’s lopsided burdens and the sense that they are called to care about European security more than many Europeans do.

No one can accuse Mr. Mattis of harboring crypto-Putinist views or illusions about the nature of the threats facing the West from Islamist terrorism or authoritarian states like Russia, China and Iran. The U.S. defense chief steered clear of his boss’s more bombastic rhetoric about NATO being “obsolete” and underscored the alliance’s centrality to American strategy. Here’s hoping the general’s tough love will spur action in NATO capitals.

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