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The resignation on Monday of US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn after revelations that he entertained improper contacts with the Russian Ambassador in Washington and ‘inadvertently’ provided ‘incomplete information’ about this to his White House superiors is embarrassing for President Donald Trump’s administration.
But, otherwise, Flynn’s departure is actually well-timed and could provide a potential boon to US Defense Secretary James Mattis. The defense secretary is in Brussels today to meet his counterparts from NATO member states for the first full Alliance ministerial meeting since the political changes in Washington.
Flynn’s defenestration due to his dubious personal contacts to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his strategically even more dubious belief in a friendship with Moscow will reassure the rest of the NATO member states.
This is partly because it indicates that the ‘pro-Russian wing’ within the White House is now in decline. The move may also herald a realignment away from the flakiest advisers assembled by Trump and towards the more experienced senior Cabinet ministers he appointed.
And there is no doubt that Mattis is both well-known and held in high esteem in Europe. Nor is there much doubt that he arrives for his first NATO Ministerial with his standing and powers enhanced, to be greeted by European colleagues desperate to see him succeed.
Still, Mattis will have his work cut out. For he needs not only to reassure America’s European allies that Trump’s willingness to ‘attack allies like Australia, bluster at rivals like China, threaten enemies like Iran and North Korea and bully neighbors like Mexico – while consistently blowing kisses to Russian President Vladimir Putin’ – as New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman excellently put it – can still be transformed into a new and positive agenda of transatlantic security cooperation with America’s oldest and most reliable allies.
However, speaking in Brussels, Mattis made it clear that NATO Allies must honour military spending pledges to ensure the US does not 'moderate' its support for the Alliance.
‘I owe it to you to give you clarity on the political reality in the United States, and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms’, he said.
‘America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defence’.
Mattis should eschew the usual boilerplate reassurances about NATO being the ‘most successful military alliance the world has ever known’, or about the Alliance remaining the ‘cornerstone’ of America’s security, if only because this is what is expected of him but what will be immediately discounted by the journalists covering the NATO Ministerial.
Besides, it is well known that Trump is lukewarm about the Alliance, and that perception won’t be dispelled soon; ‘I think you said, you confirmed, that you’re 100% behind NATO’ is how British Prime Minister Theresa May awkwardly described the US president’s position during the press conference she held with Trump after their meeting in Washington last month. And that’s how matters will stay for some time, regardless of communiqués issued in Brussels.
But there is plenty Mattis can do to channel the transatlantic debate towards more productive directions. The first approach is – paradoxically, given the US administration’s attention to this – not to concentrate too much on obtaining immediate guarantees from NATO member states that they will increase expenditures to the 2% of GDP threshold.
This is partly because it will be very difficult to get such guarantees immediately from key countries such as Germany or Italy which are facing elections this year, but also because this obsession on quantitative yardsticks in not particularly meaningful.
While NATO needs a good and honest debate about burden sharing and requires greater European contributions, a more intelligent debate is necessary on how assets are provided and shared.
Besides, the Europeans are unlikely to support increased defence spending if this is perceived to be simply as a result of US bullying, and especially when the demand comes from an administration that remains incoherent in its own strategic priorities.
Instead, what Mattis can do with great profit is to push for a broader and more urgent discussion about how the Alliance can boost the credibility of its new posture in the Baltics, Central and South Eastern Europe.
He needs also to ensure how NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence – plans to place four battalions, including a US one, one each in the Baltic States and Poland plus additional assets in Romania – is executed expeditiously and credibly.
Instead of providing countless reassurances that Trump now allegedly understands that Europe consists of more than just a collection of lazy people interspersed with some picturesque golf courses, what Mattis could do is to assert the continued validity of the US European Reassurance Initiative; that is a classic case where one deed would be worth thousands of words.
Mattis should also push NATO to accelerate its decision-making structures, which are almost as much a drag as the lack of capabilities in ensuring that the Alliance is able to respond to a range of crises and confrontation with Russia. While many of them do not fall under Article V, they do perhaps under Article IV of NATO’s founding treaty.
Towards that end, the Alliance will need to delegate more authority to NATO commanders, and that is something on which only the US can and should lead.
But what Mattis should most certainly not avoid engaging in is a discussion about the values which bind Europe and the US, and how these transcend the personalities of leaders either in the White House or in Europe’s chancelleries.
For without values which are stated, accepted and shared by its member-states, the Alliance will not hold together. Trump’s preference of treating NATO as a piggy bank operation in which one gets out only as much as one puts in is potentially much more corrosive for the future of the Alliance than all the other ill-considered remarks the new White House occupant has made over the past few months.
Still, the damage which Trump inflicted on NATO is not major, at least not for the moment. And the task of reversing it should begin today.
Banner image: Secretary of Defense James Mattis greets US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as he arrives for his first day of work at the Pentagon. He has his job cut out trying to persuade NATO Allies that the US is still committed to the Alliance. Courtesy of US Air Force Technical Sergeant Brigitte N Brantley/Wikimedia.