US may moderate its commitment to NATO. What does it mean?

SecDef James Mattis said NATO allies must pay more or US will moderate its commitment.

US Secretary of DefenseJames Mattis and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Credit:

US Secretary of DefenseJames Mattis and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Credit:


1. While no doubt that defense spending increase is very important and we have seen similar statement before would you say that the words “moderate its commitment” might create a feeling of ambiguity regarding Article 5?

2. As I said defense spending increase is definitely an important issue but on the other hand just pouring money into the system is probably not the solution. What does NATO need? New strategy. new frameworks of cooperation, new perception of threats, new political commitment?


John R. Deni*, Research Professor of National Security Studies, Strategic Studies Institute

I think allies need to carefully read every word of Mattis‘s remarks, plus what he said to the press on the flight over to Europe.  For example, with the press, he said, “…the first time [NATO] went to war was when America was attacked, so if anyone had any questions about the value, you have to look at that. But more importantly, it prevented war in Europe following two destructive wars and we clearly see the value in deterring war.”  Later, during his speech to defense ministers, he went on to call NATO “fundamental bedrock for the US and all the transatlantic community.”
Clearly, the U.S. is committed to the alliance and Article 5.  However, it’s rather unclear to me whether the ‘moderate its commitment’ language will really be effective.  As I’ve argued here, American leaders have, for decades, threatened (through rhetoric as well as legislation) to reduce the U.S. commitment to NATO by cutting the number of U.S. troops in Europe, and this has historically had little impact on European willingness to spend more on defense.  Perhaps more importantly, as your question implies, the ‘moderate its commitment’ language does little to strengthen deterrence or reassure allies, which are the most important things NATO should be doing right now.
As for what NATO needs, the answers there have been fairly obvious for a couple of years now:
  • Increased manpower — many alliance member states’ militaries have largely become boutique forces, with little real maneuver warfare capability and no depth. Even larger allies like Germany have trouble fielding significant forces — this is why Germany’s contribution to enhanced forward presence in Lithuania is so small and must be augmented by many allies. More importantly, if the allies together want to deter Russian military strength, they need to be capable of fielding large-scale forces — and today, they cannot. Given high unemployment across many European countries, it shold not be difficult to increase manpower.
  • Training exercises — right now, NATO has committed to conducting large corps-size exercises (the kind necessary to counter a Russian attack) only one every three years.  This is insufficient, but conducting the ‘high visibility’ exercise more frequently isn’t possible given costs.
  • ISR — the alliance continues to over-rely on American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. European allies should do more.
  • Medium- and heavy-lift rotary wing aircraft.
  • Guided munitions — the alliance has limited supplies of these kinds of munitions and can/should acquire more.
  • Outdated armor and artillery systems, especially relative to Russian systems.
  • Insufficient information operations capability.
  • Stealth aircraft — given Russian A2AD advantages in northeastern Europe as well as the Black Sea basin, European allies should develop and acquire stealthier aircraft.
  • Air and missile defense — right now, the U.S. is carrying most of the burden when it comes to the defensive missiles that shoot down incoming offensive ballistic missiles.

* These views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Governmen

Stanley Sloan, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council of the United States, Member, Duco Experts, Visiting Scholar in Political Science, Middlebury College

When US Secretary of Defense suggested that the United States would “moderate its commitment” to NATO if the allies did not spend more on defense, he added to the uncertainty about the Trump administration’s policy toward the alliance. What does this mean, anyway? For a man who usually chooses his words carefully, I can only imagine that this is a formula intended to show his boss that he is carrying the President’s message to the allies. However, while the odd phrase may be softer than the language President Trump has used on the issue, it clarifies very little.

Is this a different form of President Trump’s suggestion that the United States might not honor the Article 5 collective defense provision of the North Atlantic Treaty in the case of allies that were not taking on their “fair share” of the burden? Or does it mean that the United States would start pulling back forces from Europe, now that it had just started to build them back up again as a response a more aggressive Russia?

In any case, it is clear the allies need to make an enhanced commitment to the 2% spending goal by the end of 2017.  Just prior to the Mattis visit, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg had praised the allies for defense spending increases in 2016 and called for more. That was useful guidance but, at least for the next four years, the allies apparently will not know what Washington’s commitment to NATO really means. Uncertainty now rules the roost.

As any strategic thinker knows, uncertainty can play more than one way in deterrence policy. NATO’s deterrence policy is intended to deter the Russian bear from thinking it can gain political influence or, in the extreme, battlefield victories against any NATO ally. It is good for this policy if Vladimir Putin doesn’t know exactly what kind of response NATO might mount to one case or another of Russian aggression, but knows that a response of some sort is guaranteed. That’s constructive uncertainty. However, if Putin sees that it is uncertain whether the United States would come to the aid of any one of its NATO allies to defend against threats ranging from political pressure, to invasions of little green men, or to nuclear blackmail, deterrence becomes less certain and the temptations for Moscow more inviting.

The point is that deterrence is a precious commodity; it can under some circumstances be purchased for a relatively small price if the political commitment behind it is credible. The focus of strategic discussions very often is on the need for capabilities to ensure that deterrence reassures allies and deters adversaries. But if the commitment is not politically sound, the actual cost could be a miscalculation by the adversary with potentially devastating consequences.”

Sean KayProfessor, Department of Politics and Government, Ohio Wesleyan University

In one respect, a US Secretary of Defense calling out European allies on burdensharing is not “new”. Secretary Gates did in 2011, indeed the Eisenhower administration did back in the 1950s over failed burdensharing efforts then. Various US Senators during the Cold War also put forward resolutions on burdensharing and Congress has even taken votes on withdrawing all US troops from Europe. Many analysts have rightly warned that if the burdensharing was not addressed effectively, it would allow someone to demagogue the issue in deeply counter-productive ways – which is what Donald Trump has done; now reinforced by his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. What is different here is that this was done with a specific end-date, a common plan in place by the end of this year. The problem with this is it shows the vacancy of serious thinking on this issue in Washington, D.C.

The United States has long traded unequal burdensharing for influence, and also support in out-of-area operations. But the US has never really wanted to confront it’s own failures to coordinate policies that would lead to better integrated capabilities. The 2% goal is a good example of that – it would happen over 10 years, there’s no real compelling sanction for not doing it, and it is just an arbitrary number that tells us nothing about security requirements. Much of that too was driven by a sense of capabilities for out-of-area operations, a concept which has probably now gone out of business after ongoing disasters in Afghanistan and Libya. But we don’t really know what the needs are if the main focus is collective defense, they might actually be lower in terms of costs, but higher in terms of rotational personnel needs. What is really needed from Washington, D.C. is a plan and clearly stated deadline for achieving integrated pooling of resources for specific operations. Finally, NATO is continually ignoring the most important thing on it’s doorstep – that some of it’s own members are now on the path of Trumpism/Putinism, and they have votes in the NAC decision-making – Hungary, Turkey have effectively fallen – will France and the Dutch fall next? This is the existential crisis now, as is the broader process of integration in Europe which is the foundation of European and even global security and peace. NATO needs an annual membership review process, and a suspension clause for those states not upholding the promise and Euroatlantic values that are the foundation of the institution.

Garret Martin, Professorial Lecturer, School of International Service, Editor at Large at the European Institute, American University

1. Moderate its commitment’ is a rather vague (and probably intentionally so) expression. At its most extreme, you could interpret this expression as a signal that the US commitment to NATO, and by extension Article 5, is conditional on other member states spending more on defense. A more optimistic look would view this as a more blunt version of what previous US administrations have been saying for years – that NATO member states need to invest more in defense so to remain effective – and is essentially echoing what the Alliance itself agreed at the 2014 summit. In addition, Mattis was seemingly careful not to place a specific timetable for which the other states need to reach the 2% threshold. Finally Mattis did express a strong commitment to NATO during his confirmation hearings.

2. I would agree with you that there is too much fetishism around the 2% threshold. Even if 28 states reached that level, it would hardly be a magic bullet that would solve all of the Alliance’s challenges. In addition, the Alliance needs to think as much about how it spends its money on defense than on spending levels alone. Rapidly increasing defense spending runs the risk of seeing the problems of waste and duplication that have plagued European states that are part of NATO. So increased spending will need to go hand in hand with debates about strategy for the alliance, prioritizing key threats and anticipating NATO’s future roles and missions.

Magnus Nordenman, Director, Transatlantic Security Initiative, Atlantic Council

1. We can only speculate at this point what “moderating the commitment” may look like, but I think it needs to be taken seriously. It could mean less US forces in Europe, or that certain allies who underperform will find it more difficult to get a hearing in Washington in comparison to those who are serious about defense spending.

2. NATO and its members need to look at a long list of issues and what to spend any defense increases on, including new capabilities, decision-making, the Alliance’s role in the fight against terrorism. The Alliance also needs to look at readiness, which can be expensive, but Mattis noted this particular area in his speech. Now is also a good time to begin the discussion on whether NATO needs a new strategic concept.

Julianne Smith, Senior Fellow, Director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program, Center for a New American Security

Yes, “moderating the US commitment” does raise questions about US commitment to Article 5. I find it deeply worrying.

NATO allies just need to meet the commitments they made in Wales/Warsaw. And as the Alliance always does, it needs to continue to reinvent itself to take on new challenges and new threats.


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