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While we weren’t looking, President Donald Trump may have rescued NATO.

Wait a minute, you say. Didn’t Trump say in a recent interview that NATO is obsolete and the Europeans aren’t paying enough? Didn’t he say in an interview with CNN that “NATO is costing too much money … maybe we have to pay a lot less towards NATO itself”? Didn’t Hillary Clinton portray herself as a defender of NATO, different from Trump?

NATO recently concluded a meeting of defense ministers that did two things. First, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed the commitment of the United States to the alliance in strong and real terms. At the same time, he upped the pressure on allies to meet the target of 2 percent of GDP on defense, and they seem to be getting the message. American pressure now seems credible because of Trump’s position.

American displeasure over allies not meeting the target is not new. The public U.S. line over many years has been that the Europeans are not spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. This was the line of Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates (under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama), Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, and more recently Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders. But the message did not seem to get through.

Part of the reason it didn’t is the result of diminishing real U.S. commitment, and allies understood this. More important than what the United States said about its commitment is what it did. Over time both Bush and Obama reduced the real commitment of the United States while gushing good words about commitment. Certainly with the fall of the Soviet Union the need for massive armored forces in Europe declined and over time the United States withdrew forces for use in other conflicts. The Bush administration, however, retained two heavy brigades, a Stryker cavalry regiment and an Airborne brigade in Europe.

There is a need for some ground capability. But the Bush administration had plans on the books in 2008 for withdrawal of the heavy brigades in the 2012-2013 time frame. The Russia/Georgia conflict in 2008, which included the Russian occupation of Abhazia and South Ossetia, put these plans on hold at least temporarily, but the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia also reset the withdrawal plans.

In January 2014 the United States deployed 29 M1 tanks to the Grafenwoehr training area in Germany. They were not in a unit, but were available for troops to rotate in and train on the tanks. Counting the other U.S. tanks in Europe, that brought total U.S. tank strength in Europe to 29. In October 2013, U.S. tank strength had gone to zero when the administration withdrew the 172nd heavy brigade combat team.

NATO works when the U.S. leads — and by leading I mean commitment. Any NATO reaction on the ground (such as a large “training” exercise in Poland) to Russian aggression in Ukraine was not a option. Allies are not going to field a force that the Russians would find provocative without U.S. participation. Twenty-nine U.S. tanks is not enough to lead.

Finally, more than two years too late in June 2016, NATO put together a large training exercise in Poland. But it took the redeployment of a rotational U.S. heavy brigade combat team to cause it to happen. The Obama administration’s position was that this rotational presence would be continuous.

American defense spending as a percentage of GDP declined every year from 2008 to 2016, going from well over 5 percent to about 3.6 percent. (The terrible impact on all four services is detailed in Tom Philpott’s Military Update column in Stars and Stripes on Feb. 20.) Russia, however, has increased its military spending, reorganized its armed forces and put significant resources into improving its armored capabilities, to include developing a dramatically improved new tank, the T14, that may be a match for the M1 Abrams. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have many reasons for what he did, but the timing is no coincidence. U.S. tank strength in Europe went to zero in October 2013. The trouble in Ukraine began in early 2014.

Comes now Donald Trump. Candidate Trump makes apparently outrageous statements about NATO and seems to focus on the money. President Trump follows up. But Mattis seems to contradict that view in his confirmation hearings. He then goes to his first NATO ministerial meeting and assures allies of U.S. commitment, to include continuing the rotational armored presence. Given his pro-NATO views in his confirmation hearings, these assurances go over very credibly. But he also lays out a stern warning about the U.S. “moderating its commitment” over the defense spending issue. With Trump’s statement in the background, suddenly everyone is paying attention. And the alliance is re-energized by the renewed commitment coming from the very credible Mattis. Simultaneously allies are serious about increasing their contributions to alliance capabilities because of Trump’s “outrageous” statements on NATO. Allied representatives echo the need to meet spending targets and use words like milestones and plans.

If the increased spending is achieved, the alliance will be far more capable and will get back to its roots. Allies consume security, but are supposed to contribute to security also. This president does things differently, but this was a brilliant stroke. And he set it up, with Mattis deftly playing his role. In case anyone missed it, Vice President Mike Pence followed up the next week with a NATO visit and exactly the same messages.

F. Charles Parker IV, a retired Army colonel, spent 16 years on NATO’s International Staff. He lives in Belgium.


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