US defence secretary James Mattis will arrive in Brussels on Wednesday for a Nato summit with a message that will echo previous statements made by his boss: Shape up.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticised allies for not meeting Nato’s defence spending targets. During his 2016 election campaign, the property billionaire declared the organisation obsolete. And in May, a landmark first trip to a Nato meeting went off badly when Mr Trump berated other leaders.
“Over the last eight years, the United States spent more on defence than all other Nato countries combined,” he declared in a less than diplomatic plea for higher spending.
The president even dragged his feet on committing to the Article 5 pledge of mutual defence from external attack. It was not until June 9 at a White House meeting with the Romanian president that he made the pledge Europe yearned to hear.
Signs now abound that Mr Trump’s hectoring has forced the organisation to embrace change.
“A year after Mr Trump’s election, we have a sense that while Nato was concerned about its stability, given the rhetoric, it is now humming along under Trump,” said Kristine Berzina, Brussels-based senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank.
Last month, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson claimed the Trump approach, and especially the demand that defence spending tops 2 per cent of country's GDP, was paying dividends. "The president early on called on Nato member countries to step up their contributions — step up their commitment to Nato, modernise their own forces," Mr Tillerson said. "He’s been very clear, and as a result of that countries have stepped up contributions toward their own defence."
An internal report leaked last month from Nato headquarters made clear the organisation’s operational capacity has “atrophied”.
The senior security officials around Mr Trump are clear that Nato must demonstrate it has enough troops on standby for war so that it can readily deter an attack from outside.
“Effectiveness really is the crucial element that is driving this, it is not just about 2 per cent,” said Ms Berzina. “What Mr Trump has driven, especially during his visit, has been a long time coming.”
Europeans are not only reassured by the experience and competence of appointees like Mr Mattis and national security adviser HR McMaster, but also by the fact that Washington has devoted more resources across the Atlantic.
“In fact, Trump’s defence budget unveiled in May actually includes a 40 per cent increase (to US$4.8 billion, or Dh17.6bn) of the funding level set last year by president Obama for the European Reassurance Initiative. This does not look like 'strategic disengagement',” said John Bew, a fellow at the British think tank Policy Exchange.
“Viewed another way, it could be said that Trump’s demands that Nato allies do more on defence has already borne some fruit. While the president has used his role to agitate for proactivity, senior members of his team have repeatedly insisted that America remains as committed as ever to Article 5.”
While just five of the 28 countries meet the 2 per cent threshold for spending, overall expenditure levels are set to rise in 25 member states in 2017.
That will bring Romania into the top tier this year followed by Lithuania and Latvia next year.
Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, claims there has been "an increase of almost $46bn for defence since 2015.
Mr Trump is not the first US president to call for more defence spending from Nato's European members. Both George W Bush and Barack Obama made similar calls. But the conflict in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea has forced a re-examination of priorities.
As far back as the Nato summit in Wales in 2014, the members made a formal pledge to meet the 2 per cent target. At this week’s summit, Nato defence ministers — including Mr Mattis — are set to take two major decisions: One to set up a North Atlantic Command to oversee threats from Russia in the Baltic and North Seas; the second to create a logistics command to oversee troop movements across Europe.
General Petr Pavel, the chairman of Nato’s military committee, said the organisation was rising to Mr Trump’s challenges.
“I believe we are now out of the realm of doing more with less. We simply have to understand that wherever we want to do more, there will be resource implications,” Gen Pavel said.
“We can call it modernisation, we can call it adaptation. We simply have to adapt to a new reality.”