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Trump Widens Potential Rift with Mattis over NATO

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as he leaves Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as he leaves Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President-elect Donald Trump's renewed criticism of NATO widened a potential rift with Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis on the need to shore up the alliance against the threats of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a joint interview Sunday with The London Times and Germany's Bild publication, Trump recycled charges from his campaign that NATO is "obsolete," questioned the worth of the European Union and said that Germany was wrong to admit refugees fleeing Syria's civil war.

In his Senate confirmation hearing last week, retired Marine Gen. Mattis said, "If we didn't have NATO today, we'd need to create it. NATO is vital to our interests."

"I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with [in] Mr. Putin," Mattis said. "We recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance, and that we take the steps -- the integrated steps, diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps -- working with our allies to defend ourselves where we must."

"There's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia," he said.

Mattis also suggested that Trump is willing to hear opposing arguments on NATO. "I have had discussions with him on this issue," he said. "He has shown himself open, even to the point of asking more questions, going deeper into the issue."

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Trump's choice to become national security adviser, also supports bolstering NATO and other U.S. global commitments.

In a speech last week at the U.S. Institute of peace, Flynn said, "Alliances are one of the great tools that we have, and the strength of those alliances magnifies our own strengths.

"As we examine and potentially re-baseline our relationships around the globe, we will keep in mind the sacrifices and deep commitments that many of our allies have made on behalf of our security and our prosperity," Flynn said.

'It's Obsolete'

After meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Trump's criticism of NATO is "in contradiction" of Mattis' vision of a strengthened alliance and U.S. support of NATO's Article 5, which considers an attack on any member as an attack against all.

"Obviously, the comments from President-elect Trump that he views NATO as obsolete were viewed with anxiety," Steinmeier said.

In his remarks to The London Times and Bild, Trump said of NATO: "It's obsolete, first because it was designed many, many years ago." He renewed his charges that most members of the 28-nation alliance are not living up to their responsibilities under the treaty.

The U.S. provides about 70 percent of the funding for NATO while other nations "aren't paying their fair share, so we're supposed to protect countries," Trump said. "There's five countries that are paying what they're supposed to -- five. It's not much."

Under agreements reached in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists launched attacks in eastern Ukraine, NATO members pledged to devote at least two percent of their budgets to defense and outlined steps to reach that goal.

Despite the criticism of NATO, Trump's remarks could also be seen as a prod to get members to pay their dues. "NATO is very important to me," he said.

However, Trump's views that NATO is obsolete are in line with those of Putin, who has for years denounced NATO's expansion to Russia's borders. In response to Trump's remarks, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that "NATO is indeed a vestige of the past and we agree with that."

A Deal With Putin

Trump also expressed interest in a deal with Putin that would lift sanctions against Russia in return for a mutual reduction of nuclear arsenals.

"They have sanctions on Russia -- let's see if we can make some good deals with Russia,'' Trump said, according to the Times. "For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially; that's part of it.''

The Trump interview came as U.S. troops and tanks were arriving in the Polish town of Zagan in a historic move to shore up NATO's eastern flank that has infuriated Putin. In addition, 300 U.S. Marines landed in Norway on Monday to join in training exercises.

In a ceremony as snow fell over the weekend, Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz told the first contingents of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Carson, Colorado, "We have waited for you for a very long time."

"We waited for decades, sometimes feeling we had been left alone, sometimes almost losing hope, sometimes feeling that we were the only one who protected civilization from aggression that came from the east," Macierewicz said.

Reassuring Europe

To counter Russia, the Obama administration, with the support of Congress in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, recommended boosting the budget for the European Reassurance Initiative from $789 million to $3.4 billion.

ERI was established in the fiscal 2015 budget to "reassure allies of the U.S. commitment to their security and territorial integrity as members of the NATO alliance." It supported increased U.S. investment across five categories: presence, training and exercises, infrastructure, pre-positioned equipment, and building partner capacity.

To expand presence across the region, the U.S. Army began periodic rotations of armored and airborne brigades to Poland and the Baltic states; the Air Force added additional F-15 Eagles to NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission; and the Navy cycled ships through the Black Sea. The U.S. also spent $250 million to improve bases in Europe.

In a welcoming ceremony in Germany earlier this month for the 4,000 troops of the 3rd ABCT, Air Force Lt. Gen. Tim Ray, the deputy commander of U.S. European Command, said that its presence showed that the U.S. commitment to NATO is "rock solid."

"I can assure you, this [ABCT] does not stand alone -- it is integrated and combined with forces and other equipment in space, cyberspace, the air, land and sea, with our allies and partners," Ray said. "A joint persistent rotational presence of American land, sea and air is in the region as a show of support to our allies and in response to Russia's actions in Ukraine."

"Let me be very clear -- this is one part of our efforts to deter Russian aggression, ensure the territorial integrity of our allies, and maintain a Europe that is whole, free, prosperous and at peace."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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