LONDON: During a swing through several NATO capitals after President Donald Trump rumbled through NATO headquarters last week, Defense Secretary James Mattis stuck to a simple message: The alliance remains strong, and American interests are European interests. But there was no shaking the spectacle that President Trump made of what is normally a paint-by-numbers, feel-good summit in Brussels.
The long-planned stops in Croatia and Norway were meant to show continued American involvement in the Balkans, where new NATO members are fending off Russian information operations, and to offer thanks to Norway, one of the founding members of NATO which Mattis referred to as the “sentinel of the north.”
But the disorder wrought by President Trump in Brussels overshadowed Mattis’ trip, now dogged by questions over whether the president might offer concessions to Russia on Monday in Helsinki — including cancellation of large military exercises in Poland and Norway — or make more demands for NATO to increase spending faster than is politically possible in the capitals of Europe.
By design, the defense secretary kept a low profile in Brussels, since his major policy objectives — establishing a new NATO Atlantic command and laying down guidelines to improve NATO’s ability to respond rapidly to crises — had been wrapped up in the months before the meeting. The annual Brussels summit is traditionally the time for heads of state to step forward and for their defense ministers to step aside.
But on the final day of the summit, when Trump demanded allies ramp up their defense spending by January or face consequences, and stunning international staffs by announcing he would be holding a surprise press conference, Mattis was noticeably absent from the stage.
Trump’s last-minute press conference not only forced the cancellation of much-anticipated meetings focused on Russian activities in Ukraine and Georgia. He also took the podium bookended by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, leaving Mattis standing off to the side, out of the camera’s eye. The secretary had briefed the president before he spoke, aides said, and was in close contact with him throughout the Brussels summit, but for the audience at home, he was invisible.
Trump ended up affirming the U.S. commitment to NATO during his remarks, and congratulated himself for cajoling the Europeans to pay even more for their own defense than had previously been agreed upon.
But Trump’s claim appeared to be a case of a leader declaring victory and leaving the battlefield. Later that same day, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, wouldn’t address Trump’s demands that individual NATO countries begin dedicating up to 4 percent of their GDP to national defense. (The U.S. pays about 3.5 percent, a figure that is set to decline over the next several years.)
“We have a commitment to spend 2 percent,” Stoltenberg said
French President Emmanuel Macron also denied that any allies had agreed to go beyond the 2 percent.
Two days later, standing next to Mattis in Oslo, Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said that his country “is committed to the 2 percent goal in NATO,” noting that Norway — which dedicates 1.6 percent of its GDP to defense — had bumped up defense spending by 4 percent in real terms since 2013 and would “continue substantial increases in spending also in the coming years.”
Trump’s 4 percent demand, at least publicly, had already disappeared.
Getting to the magical 2 percent is something that is taken seriously in Europe, and allies are underscoring what they have already been spending money on when Mattis arrived.
And there were other, less public signals. The Norwegian Air Force dispatched two F-35s to escort Mattis’ plane into Oslo on Friday, a shining reminder that the country is buying 52 of the fighter planes, with the first six having already been delivered. You can be sure the Russians also noted the Norwegian flights.
That topic of buying American will be front and center this coming week in London during the biannual Farnborough Air Show, one of the largest and most important events of the year for weapons manufacturers. Pentagon and State Department officials are here pushing the purchase of American defense equipment, though the most senior White House official, and the head of Pentagon acquisition, Ellen Lord, have pulled out in recent days with little explanation.
President Trump has zeroed in on the need to increase U.S. defense exports as part of his America First plan of increasing industrial output.
On Thursday in Brussels, the president said he is willing to help smaller countries buy American military equipment, and “we will help them out a little bit. We’re not going to finance it for them, but we’ll make sure that they’re able to get payments and various other things so they can buy.”
That message hasn’t been lost on allies. While in Croatia, Mattis discussed the Croatian desire to buy U.S.-made F-16 fighters from Israel, which would come with contracts for American companies to provide spare parts, and requires the blessing of the Pentagon and the State Department. The Pentagon has also given Croatia Kiowa helicopters and Black Hawk helicopters, and Croatian officials said they’re interested in replacing their old Russian helicopters with American ones.
Concerns over military exercises
While at NATO, Trump added another layer to European insecurity when he said he might be open to cancelling U.S. participation in NATO exercises if asked to by Vladimir Putin at their summit. The president caught the Pentagon off guard last month when he agreed to cancel joint U.S. -South Korean military exercises until the fall, at the request of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Any move to curtail exercises, especially in the Baltics or the Balkans, would deeply alarm allies currently being targeted by Russian information warfare tactics used to stir unrest amid democratic elections. In 2017, Montenegro joined NATO amid accusations that Russian agents had planned a coup to upend the accession, although Moscow has rejected the charges.
Here are several major exercises coming up that the Russians would dearly love to derail. One, dubbed Trident Juncture, will possibly be the largest NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War. Some 40,000 troops will move throughout Norway, the Baltic Sea and the North Atlantic. Another, dubbed Anakonda, will take place in Poland in November, involving 10,000 troops.
Despite the fireworks unleashed by President Trump just two days earlier in Brussels, American support is still critically important to European nations. Mattis, a former NATO Supreme Commander, has acted as a conduit to deliver Washington’s new priorities, with an understanding of the political realities European governments face.
“You are a star in NATO,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide (who was defense minister before that) said after their meeting on Saturday. Without mentioning Trump’s rhetoric and allusions to leaving the alliance unless allies began drastically ramping up their defense spending, she put the best face on the NATO summit in Brussels.
“This might be the best deliverables for a summit in 25 years or more years,” Soereide said, referring to the commitments to build a new Atlantic Command that will focus on security at sea, and more troops for the Afghanistan and counter-ISIS missions.
The minister then moved to a theme pushed by several allies at Brussels: that simply spending more money, while good for security, isn’t the solution for all security issues.
“We very often have discussions of Europeans needing to do more for our own security, but this is about us doing something for our common security,” she said. “Our security is intertwined, and the core point is that all of us, on both sides of the Atlantic, we take on obligations that go beyond our own national interests. That’s the point of our bond.”
Mattis, speaking next, lavished praise on Norway, which now hosts 700 U.S. Marines who rotate in annually for training: “Norway’s leadership in the Nordic region and especially up in the Arctic where you serve as NATO’s sentinel … you are definitely contributing beyond your weight class.”