The moment of truth has arrived for NATO members in Europe. After months of uneasy speculation about the new U.S. administration's commitment to the alliance — which President Donald Trump criticized as obsolete throughout his campaign — the organization's members got clarification on the matter from U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Addressing NATO leaders in Brussels on Wednesday, Mattis announced that the United States may scale back its commitment to NATO unless its fellow member states boost their defense spending. His comments came as little surprise. After all, this is not the first time the United States has urged the rest of NATO's participants to boost their defense spending, which by and large falls short of the required 2 percent of gross domestic product. And though Mattis' warning was worrisome for NATO members, who fear that Trump will make good on his intermittent promises to curtail U.S. support for the organization, it probably doesn't signal the end of the alliance.
Mattis wasn't alone in his support for increasing defense spending across Europe. In fact, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance's partners agreed that they must all spend more. But for many European countries, this is easier said than done. Several NATO members in Europe have had to pare down their budgets more and more since the eurozone crisis began nearly a decade ago, and defense spending has taken a back seat. Even members with serious security concerns, such as Poland, have dipped below the 2 percent spending quota at times. And as former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has noted, increasing defense spending is infeasible for countries like Italy that are struggling to keep their budget deficits under the European Union's 3 percent limit as it is. (For that reason, Renzi, along with European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker, has proposed excluding defense spending from deficit calculations.)
Even so, plenty of NATO members are already in the process of increasing their defense spending. The German government announced a plan in January to boost military spending by nearly 2 billion euros ($2.1 billion) this year, a move that will bring its defense expenditures closer to, but still shy of, the 2 percent mark. Lawmakers on Lithuania's National Security and Defense Committee, meanwhile, recently debated plans to take their country's defense expenses above the NATO target by 2020. Aware of the challenge that reaching the quota poses to many NATO members, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon proposed that member countries could instead focus on progressively increasing their defense spending each year. That kind of good-faith effort would be easier on many members' budgets and, based on Mattis' comments, would probably be enough to keep the United States from backing out of its commitment to the alliance. Alternatively, countries could expedite their procurement plans to temporarily increase their annual defense spending without scrapping their budgets.
So long as European governments continue their efforts to boost defense spending, they will probably not have to worry much about the United States changing its role in NATO. As much as the Trump administration has called the alliance into question, it has also acknowledged its importance for ensuring Europe's security in the face of growing threats. In addition to the menace of terrorism, Europe is concerned about Russia's activities in the Continent's borderlands. This perceived threat is, in fact, one of the main reasons that many NATO members have begun beefing up their defense budgets. Despite the Trump administration's frequent talk of improving relations with Moscow, it, too, has taken a stand to maintain military preparedness against Russia in light of the country's actions in Ukraine. NATO will play an instrumental role not only in keeping Russia in check but also in mitigating the danger that the Islamic State poses. Still, the alliance can be effective only if all its members contribute equally to their mutual defense and security.
Russia's military buildup in Europe's periphery, moreover, is just one of many threats to the balance of power between Washington and Moscow on the Continent. As the NATO meeting was taking place in Brussels, news of Russia's alleged breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty gave Washington a cogent reminder that the agreement may well have run its course. The treaty has been one of the main diplomatic tools to manage the balance of power between the United States and Russia in Europe since it was signed in 1987. But it has lost its relevance to Washington and Moscow alike because it does not extend to other global competitors such as China. Considering the unresolved tensions that remain between Moscow and Washington, the new administration will not likely decrease its commitment to NATO, even as it tries to mend fences with Russia.