Defense Secretary Jim Mattis highlighted the U.S. commitment to NATO today, stressing the alliance's importance in regional and global security while calling on nations to meet their military funding commitments.
"For seven decades the world has watched NATO become the most successful and powerful military alliance in modern history," Mattis said in prepared remarks to a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels.
He told the assembled defense leaders that NATO, with its members’ shared commitment, will remain what President Dwight D. Eisenhower described as a "valuable, necessary, and constructive force."
Evolving Security Challenges
Mattis, who as a Marine Corps general served as NATO's supreme allied commander for transformation, noted how the security landscape has changed in recent years, to include threats from Russia as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
"The year 2014 awakened us to a new reality: Russia used force to alter the borders of one of its sovereign neighbors, and on Turkey's border ISIS emerged and introduced a ruthless breed of terror, intent on seizing territory and establishing a caliphate," he said.
While some in the 28-member alliance "have looked away in denial of what is happening," he said, NATO needs to adapt to meet the changing security situations.
"For despite the threats from the east and south, we have failed to fill gaps in our NATO Response Force or to adapt to modem threats, or increase the readiness of much of our force structure," he said.
The transatlantic alliance is built on the common defense of its members, Mattis pointed out. It arose out of strategic necessity and now must now evolve for that same reason, he said.
"Our community of nations is under threat on multiple fronts as the arc of insecurity builds on NATO's periphery and beyond," he said. "We must act in the interests of our 'democratic islands of stability' if we are to live up to our responsibilities as guardians for our nations and sentinels watching for threats."
The transatlantic bond is "essential to countering Islamic extremism, to blocking Russia's efforts to weaken democracies, and to addressing a more assertive China," he said.
NATO, he said, must tighten its decision cycle both in determining the actions of the alliance and in resourcing those decisions with robust and interoperable capabilities, he said.
Balancing Collaboration and Confrontation: Russia
How the alliance responds to threats and provocation is "not lost on any nation, not least the nation to our east, nor on its leader," Mattis said.
"While the United States and the alliance seek to engage Russia, we must at the same time defend ourselves if Russia chooses to act contrary to international law," he said.
The United States, the defense secretary said, remains willing to keep open political channels of cooperation and de-escalate tensions.
"We remain open to opportunities to restore a cooperative relationship with Moscow, while being realistic in our expectations and ensuring our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength," Mattis said.
"We are not willing, however, to surrender the values of this alliance nor let Russia, through its actions, speak louder than anyone in this room," he said.
The United States will stand firm against the threats, the defense secretary said. "We will buttress this alliance and defend ourselves, even as we watch for a Russia that lives up to its commitments in the NATO-Russia Founding Act," Mattis said.
He added, "Balancing collaboration and confrontation is admittedly an uncomfortable strategic equation."
Meeting Two Percent Defense Target
Mattis called on alliance members to meet the goal of spending two percent of their respective country's GDP on defense. Only Britain, Estonia, Greece, Poland and the United States have done so, the defense secretary said.
The American taxpayer must not continue to carry a "disproportionate share of the defense of Western values," Mattis said.
"Americans cannot care more for your children's future security than you do," he said. "Disregard for military readiness demonstrates a lack of respect for ourselves, for the alliance, and for the freedoms we inherited, which are now clearly threatened."
Immediate and steady progress toward the goal of meeting the two-percent target must become a reality, if NATO is to remain a credible alliance and able to adequately defend itself, the defense secretary said.
US Commitment in Europe
The United States under U.S. Operation Atlantic Resolve, he pointed out, is moving armored units into the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to support and supplement NATO's commitment to deterrence.
The United States will soon join the Britain, Canada and Germany in leading combined and enhanced forward presence defensive forces in Poland and the Baltic States, the defense secretary said.
"In so doing our nations are demonstrating the trans-Atlantic bond, standing up for our values, and recognizing that the freedoms we hold dear are worth defending," Mattis said.
(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)