by Kate Clark
During his campaign, President Donald Trump made more than one inflammatory remark about the United States’ involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), calling the organization “obsolete.” This came as quite the contrast to former President Obama’s statements and actions during his time in office, which included reassurances of the U.S.’s commitment to the organization, and to its allies.
Defense Secretary James Mattis’ view on NATO is slightly more nebulous than the new President’s. During his hearing and confirmation, he affirmed his support for NATO, calling it “vital” to the interests of the U.S. and stating “if we didn’t have NATO today, we’d need to create it.” Additionally, Secretary Mattis served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, one of NATO’s two strategic commanders, from 2007 to 2009. However, recent news has reported that in his first official NATO meeting as Defense Secretary, Secretary Mattis demanded that member countries reach NATO’s 2% of GDP defense spending quota, or the US would “moderate its commitment to the alliance.”
This statement was not unfounded; it is true that the compliance of other nations to NATO standards is questionable. As of 2015, only 5 of NATO’s 28 member countries were meeting the defense-spending quota. The U.S. ranks first in defense spending at 3.6% of GDP, almost doubling the quota, and accounts for roughly 75% of NATO’s overall defense spending.
So, where does NATO stand in our interests and priorities today? We are in a post-Iraq War isolationist phase – evidenced by the isolationist, protectionist, “America first” Trump campaign. His election victory could be in no small part contributed to Americans’ prioritization of economic and military strength. The new President even applauded the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, addressing it as an explicit decision to put its national identity, autonomy, and self-interest ahead of international commitments.
With the dynamic security threats we could face from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other areas of the globe, America’s national security interests are not occurring in isolation. Our allies face many of the same issues, and perhaps the solutions lie in cooperation. Secretary Mattis has taken a more measured approach in response to national security threats. His stance strengthens NATO by ensuring compliance with its rules and regulations. With this action, we are not forsaking our commitment to our allies, but rather showing its importance and investing in its value for the future. Whether or not the argument of NATO being obsolete is true right now, General Mattis’ actions are preventing this from becoming a fact in the coming years.
How the new President will use NATO is still up for debate. Since 2014, NATO’s member countries have stood in solidarity against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Trump’s close relationship with Russia could put this stance in jeopardy. Additionally, President Trump’s insistence on “America first” could breach the trust and mutual support that NATO has historically offered its members. With the rise of populist campaigns across Europe, NATO could see similar reactions from other members such as France, the Netherlands, and the UK. And when countries start to sacrifice the security of their NATO allies in favor of their own agendas, the alliance risks losing its credibility and its core purpose.
In truth, the future of NATO could hold any number of outcomes. The interactions between Secretary Mattis and President Trump will surely help determine which path the organization takes—whether it be restoring the alliance to its intended glory or driving it into the ground. Recently, Secretary Mattis remarked that President Trump has thrown his “full support” behind NATO. However, we have yet to see whether or not NATO will remain the same organization it was created to be in 1949.