Mattis NATO ultimatum stutters European collective defence moods
Comments on the US’s conditional commitment to NATO by Def. Secretary General Jim Mattis, in spite of later reassurances from himself and VP Mike Pence, have been met with strong reaction by European leaders.
Responses so far have ranged from agreement and support from the UK’s Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, to the steadfast resolve of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in stating that Germany does not plan to accelerate the 2% spending goal sooner than the 2024 deadline agreed upon during the 2016 NATO summit in Wales.
Reaffirmations of US support in NATO soon followed. But despite Mattis, Tillerson and Pence’s attempts to dampen anxiety, the renewed comments on burden-sharing signals uncertainty for European leaders on how much they can depend on the alliance and the Trump administration. The American January and February statements to the press in Brussels and in Munich come at a time when Europe’s defence and security is being stretched to new extremes between refugee migration in the South and a resurgent Russia in the East.
Timeline of Events
Last Wednesday, General Mattis rattled Europe by issuing what appeared to be an ultimatum for the NATO 2% GDP benchmark of defence spending. The statement – “No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of Western values...Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do” – was made during a meeting with NATO defence ministers in Brussels. Mattis also gave a strict deadline that the spending has to reach 2% by the end of the year or the US would 'moderate' its support in NATO operations.
The pressure towards an increase in NATO contributions came a month after President Trump’s described NATO as obsolete during an interview with Germany's Bild newspaper and the Times of London.
"Number one, it was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago," he said. "Number two, the countries weren't paying what they're supposed to be paying".
Allegations by the US on European under-spending on defence came after NATO President Jens Stoltenberg’s encouraging words at a pre-ministerial press conference. He claimed that, overall, NATO members have increased their defence spending by 3.8% from last year – an increase of approximately $10bn. But presently, only four European NATO members have met the 2% guideline: Estonia, the UK, Greece and Poland.
In a global context, relative to other global powers, Europe’s defence budget has been in steady decline since 2005. From 2005 to 2015, overall defence spending in the EU 27 dropped 11% and landed at it lowest levels of GDP contribution at an average of 1.4%. This amounts to decreases of 2bn euro per year over the past 10 years. This sits is in stark contrast to the US contribution, which has invested twice as much in defence spending, contributing 4.5% of its GDP.
US attempts to reassure European Allies at the Munich Security Conference
After the NATO Brussels meeting, the Munich Security Conference (17-19 February) saw Mattis take a less severe tone. Mattis addressed the audience of military leaders and lawmakers on Friday, saying “The reality is that American security is permanently tied to the security of Europe.”
He added that “it is a fair demand that all who benefit from the best alliance in the world carry their proportionate share of the necessary costs to defend our freedoms."
At the same conference, Pence reassured European Allies on Saturday:
"Today, on behalf of President Trump, I bring you this assurance. The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to our transatlantic alliance."
Participants have noted that despite the calming tones, the high-level US delegation made no mention of Russia, Iran, Syria, or China. This has supported some commentators’ previous views that the Alliance has lost its shared values, a sense of purpose or common vision. Instead, more cynical voices view NATO as being used on a transactional basis between the US and European countries with Europe 'buying' the US’s commitment through defence spending.
On Saturday 18 Feburary, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault lamented in a tweet that Michael Pence spoke of unity at the Munich Conference but made no mention of the European Union. The omission of Europe’s supranational political and economic bloc from the dialogue indicates a division in transatlantic attitude.
Europe...poised to stand on its own?
Image courtesy of the European Defence Agency
Juncker followed Mattis’s statements with a call to “bundle their (Europeans’) defence spending better and spend the money more efficiently,” while also denouncing the ultimatum by remarking, “I am very much against letting ourselves be pushed into this."
Even prior to Trump’s electoral victory last November, European NATO members already started developing action plans for greater defence cooperation amongst themselves. European leaders have touted Europe-wide initiatives since summer 2016 and the September Bratislava Summit. These initiatives included plans to create an EU defence planning headquarters, an increase in R&D cooperation in defence technologies, and the creation of a European defence fund.
On November 2016, the EU Commission unveiled the European Defence Action Plan (EDAP), a three-pillared plan to a) launch a European Defence Fund, b) foster investments in defence supply chains and c) reinforcing a Single Market for Defence.
The key difference between the US’s strongly worded suggestions and Europe’s planning was that the message of last years’ European talks, proposals and declarations were based on increasing the efficiency rather than the overall amount of national defence spending.
The cries for burden-sharing have existed in NATO memory since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, when the (now-defunct) Western European Union lacked the material capacity to resolve the crisis. The memory of the US intervention in the Kosovo crisis, NATO’s Operation Allied Force in 1999, and the ISAF NATO mission in Afghanistan, further drove home the imbalance of military capabilities. Europe is comparatively lacking in strategic transport, command and control, ISR and ground support.
France and Germany are now collaborating on a joint-fleet of C-I30Js
Perhaps as a compound reaction to Trump’s radical executive orders towards migration, remarks on NATO obsolescence and his renewed line on NATO defence spending; France and Germany have made clear their cooperative acts. The two countries formally announced at the NATO summit, the creation of a joint-fleet of Lockheed Martin C-130J transport planes to later join a Dutch-led fleet of Airbus A330 tanker planes. Belgium and Norway are also being courted to join the group. German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyon had hoped to unveil the plan to Gen. Mattis as evidence of Europe’s commitment to NATO. This comes alongside other projects with Norway, Romania and the Czech Republic.
Threats to lessen the US’s role in NATO places the pre-existing Berlin-Plus Agreements in peril. These 2002 agreements allowed European members of NATO, access to NATO (importantly, the US’s) platforms and weapons to perform European missions where NATO chooses not to intervene. Since 2002, Berlin Plus has been used twice -- Once in Operation Concordia in the Former Yugoslav Republic in Macedonia, and a second time in EUFOR Althea in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
While it is one thing to say that the US will not get involved in missions within Europe’s geographic interests, it is another to potentially deny access to the US’s arsenal as part of the Alliance-commitment. Despite increasing speeches on autonomy and self-sufficiency, current plans for European-specific defence were shared with the public as a basis to ultimately complement and strengthen overall NATO capabilities.
The startlingly stringent tone of the Trump administration is in contrast to the EU-NATO joint declaration signed in Warsaw in July 2016, many months before Trump took office. The declaration was signed by the President of the European Commission, President of the European Council and the NATO secretary general, and for European leaders, symbolises support in the implementation of the EDAP and the Implementation Plan of the EU Global Strategy in the area of Defence and Security.
The Tug-of-War between Humanitarian missions and Hard Defence on the Continent
Calls by the US for European states to increase defence spending come at odds with most European NATO members that have politically and financially invested in a uniquely European project. The urgency of a defence increase highlights the tension that European countries experience between funnelling money into the 'Liberal’ soft power emphasis of the EU – a.k.a. 'Civilian Power Europe' – or focussing on building their traditional hard power.
The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, made a point in the divergent security goals of Europe vs non-European NATO members. After Mattis’s quotes on the need for European members to increase their spending, Juncker stated to the media, “If you look at what Europe is doing in defence, plus development aid, plus humanitarian aid, the comparison with the United States looks rather different. Modern politics cannot just be about raising defence spending.”
Development Aid reports from the OECD appear to confirm this claim. While the US is at the top of the list for the overall amount of money spent, the Top 10 list for 'donor amount relative to GDP' is headed by European countries such as Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark and – again – the UK. The EU’s own aid budget is taken from a pooling of member state resources in the EU budget via a combination of VAT, import tax duties and national contributions of about 0.7% of GNI. In 2016, the EU aid budget rose 16% with the humanitarian aid budget rising to 1.1B EUR, along with an additional 200M EUR being set aside in 2017 for 'exceptional' circumstances.
The heightened alternative security spending of European NATO members comes at a time of migratory crisis following the turmoil in Syria, Libya and other areas of MENA. The EU had already pledged 3B EUR to Turkey for helping to stem the tide of refugees, and an 1.8B EUR emergency trust fund to Africa, in addition to the EU’s pre-existing humanitarian aid budget. While by no means a permanent measure, the sudden spiked increase of humanitarian, development and migration-related spending since 2015 brings to light the multi-faceted nature of contemporary European defence and security.
As such, the vague threat of a US pull-out from the North Atlantic Alliance brings an immediacy to defence spending in the already competing demands of Europe’s national budgets.