The Great NATO Poker Game

It was only a matter of time before “Mad Dog” Mattis made a few headlines. The man is famously expressive — and contrary to popular impression — not plain spoken, but very eloquent and precise in his language.

Mattis grabbed the spotlight this week with the words he shared with the NATO leadership -privately- concerning NATO member nations allocating thier “fair share” on Defense spending. The finality and precision of the language that Mattis used is said to suggest the that the US can maintain it’s own security if NATO fails to protect itself within Europe. Mattis wasn’t saying anything new — he was just saying it with a precision that a lot of folks don’t understand.


The typical American assumes that this refers to amount of money that each NATO nation pays into the alliance — which is wrong, and was a peice of rhetoric in this election cycle that was engineered to mislead in order to fan the flames of isolationism that Mr. Trump has been flirting with since his confused transition into a confused Republican.

The Washington Treaty, or the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, sets up an understanding between nearly 30 countries to work out differences diplomatically, entangle themselves economically, rebuild/maintain their Military and Civil infrastructures with an eye towards collaboration, and states that an armed attack on any member nation within the geographic bounds of the treaty is considered an attack against all members of the treaty. If this happens, then each member state will “will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

My point in quoting that element of the treaty directly is stress this: There is assurance of aid to a member nation, not the assurance of armed intervention. (France still pulled out in the 60’s, because even that was too much entaglement for them — they didn’t want to share their missiles with the rest of NATO. They returned 9 years ago in 2008 — after the heavy lifting of the alliance had passed.)

There is also no treaty obligation to contribute X amount of dollars to build a NATO army. Most of the treaty concerns itself with bringing the nations of Europe in tight association of each other — encouraging them to build up thier military strength to a point that they can defend themselves, and come to each others aid — while entangling them economically so that they see their enemies as non-European, not intra-European. Contextually, in 1949, this was seen as one of the only ways to keep the Soviet Union from gobbling up even more European nations, and to build a construct of nations that would not, yet again, turn on themselves and start another global conflict.


Search as you may, but the there is no absolute amount of spending required by the treaty. Instead, NATO members come together and make recommendations on how much money should be spent on defense by each member nation. It is usually set up in the context of x% of the member nations Gross Domestic Product.

Money — it’s ALWAYS about money.

The US has since WWII been an enthusiastic spender in matters of defense. It was a miracle of management that the US was able to catch up with the spending / production of the other nations in the short amount of time that it took them. As a side note, the world owes its freedom to many men and women that did incredible things between 1934–1946; William S. Knudsen is an individual that did his fair share and more, as he organized and optimized America’s industrial potential in a way that just wouldn’t be possible anymore. As such, the US went from less than 2% of a fairly small GDP to over 40% of a radically enlarged GDP of defense spending in less than 5 years. Since WW2, our GDP has risen, and we on the average spend around 4–5% of GDP as an average. The thing to keep in mind is that the GDP in 1946 was about $250B, now it is over $16,675B/$16 Trillion. In keeping with that steady defense spending, and not growing our borders, we’ve built a ridiculous Military machine. There is an amazing amount of waste & flat out theft as well, but that’s a subject for another article.

Inside Europe, the most economically powerful country is Germany, with a GDP of $3.7 Trillion. In 2015 they spent about 1.2% of their GDP on defense. The UK comes in at $2.7T of GDP and spends about 2% of its GDP on Defense. If Germany spent the recommended amount on it’s defense budget they would eclipse the rest of Europe in military might — which is a very uncomfortable footing for the other NATO states, as well as Germany themselves. This is an example of why pestering the NATO states on spending to a rule is a bad idea.

No one in Europe likes the idea of a large German military, not even the Germans. It will be 100’s of years until images like this don’t have an impact.

The other case to look at is Greece. They have a tiny GDP in comparison to the rest of the NATO nations, a “mere” $242B. However they spend a whopping 5.6% on Defense because even though they share borders with many NATO states, they are very distrustful of them for many historical and modern reasons.

Russia has a GDP of about $1.3T, and spends 5.4% of it against defense. To put it mildly, they are massively out gunned since the Cold War, and have directly stated that their defense deterrence takes the form of nuclar retaliation, not conventional forces. Even in the Cold War, with the tank gap in it’s favor, the strategy was to blanket Germany in over 800 tactical nuclear wareheads and then move forward. NATO and the Warsaw Pact were both bluffing with their conventional forces, and to a certain extent, still are.

Today NATO nations, both large and small, account for just over 70% of the world defense spending. Russia? a little over 5%. To say that NATO nations do not spend enough is ridiculous. I tend to be a bit of a hawk on responsible defense, but the idea that the NATO states aren’t doing their due diligence is one that can only be accepted by the uninformed, and only delivered by someone trying to distract you. NATO needs to spend differently to defend from a theoreatical conventional Russian attack, but the money is there at the current levels.


The Trump message on NATO during the campaign was (as to be expected) much less eloquent and precise than reality could accept: We will leave you if you don’t spend more.

Mattis, ironically, was combining the message that Obama has been pushing for years (NATO needs to rally and step up local defense responsibilities,) with the reality of the situation now: ‘There is a new sheriff in town and he doesn’t understand any of this — you’d better get your act together NOW, because rash decisions will be made above me. I’ve got your back, but I’m not the only cog in this machine.’

The US has no intentions of reducing its military spending; What the US is telegraphing through Mattis is that NATO isn’t our primary concern anymore. We will be there, but the NATO nations had better be ready to take the first punch. That first punch is of course from Russia, or possibly other Middle Eastern states.

What has the NATO members worried is not the message, but the man behind the man delivering it and his ties to the enemy that would threaten them. The Trump administration is disorganized enough, naive enough, and frankly unqualified enough, to distance itself too far from NATO concerns. It will take considerable statecraft to keep Russia and China both in check without starting WWIII — while this administration can’t even decide why it’s Nation Security Advisor isn’t in his office anymore, and thinks it’s Intelligence and Justice agencies are their enemy for doing their jobs.

Luckily we have Mattis to buffer and hopefully control the situation. As he has very close experience with NATO, he delivered a literal message to them that isn’t the Trump tongue and cheek side show that usually drips from the lips of Spicer and Conway. It was designed to brign them into the understanding of the current climate and reality. No president before this one would leave NATO hanging — this one might.

Mattis was absolutly the right man to deliver the right message to NATO on this. If and when Mattis finally has his fill with Trump, that is when we will be in very big trouble.