Everyone should read Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s resignation letter. In it, Mattis correctly warns us to confront threats from Russia and China. But he also reveals a naive view about America’s military alliances. He complains that “we cannot protect our interests … without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.” The problem with this view is that America’s military alliances are weak, and no amount of “treating allies with respect” will change that fundamental fact.
Specifically, Mattis cites “the Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations” and “NATO’s 29 democracies” as proof of “our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” But these two examples are better proof of the opposite view: that the United States cannot depend on such alliances for our security. “The Defeat-ISIS coalition,” for example, is not a durable or “comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships” but rather is an ad hoc assembly. The United States raises such coalitions specifically because traditional alliance systems, such as NATO or the United Nations Security Council, are not reliable partners.
Even NATO allies have at times pursued policies that were adversarial to American security: the strength of our alliances depends on the momentary priorities of the United States and its allies, not on whether the president is showing enough deference and respect to foreign heads of state.
Mattis should not perpetuate the illusion that “74 nations” or “29 democracies” are equal partners in national security, as if they are all ready, willing, and able to take up arms in each others’ defense. This illusion is dangerous because faith in it causes citizens and leaders in these countries to become complacent about their security, and that complacence gets exploited by the very aggressors that Secretary Mattis fears.
President Trump, on the other hand, has admirably alerted voters to the weakness of such alliances. This past summer, for example, a chorus of journalists and politicians were indignant when the president questioned whether NATO would defend a small member state like Montenegro. The president’s critics quoted Article 5 of the NATO treaty: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”
But Trump is right. NATO will not, in fact, go to war to defend it smallest members like Montenegro. Russia proved this on September 5, 2014 when it committed an armed attack against Estonia, a NATO member.
Russia attacked Estonia just two days after President Obama had visited the Estonian capital and declared, “your timeless independence will always be guaranteed by the strongest military alliance the world has ever known.” Over the preceding months, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine challenged whether NATO was willing and able to defend its most vulnerable members. Obama’s purpose in visiting Estonia was to assure the world — and Baltic states in particular — that NATO would, indeed, stand by its Article 5 commitments. Obama said, “we will defend the territorial integrity of every single Ally. . . . Article 5 is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all.”
The president promised “positioning more American equipment so it’s ready if needed.” He said, “We need to enhance NATO’s Rapid Response Force so it can deploy even more quickly and not just react to threats, but also deter them.” And he warned that the recent experience in Ukraine would not repeat itself in a NATO country: “The actions of the separatists in Ukraine and Russia evoke dark tactics from Europe’s past that ought to be consigned to a distant history. Masked men storming buildings. Soldiers without flags slipping across the border.”
Yet two days later masked men stormed buildings. Russian soldiers without flags slipped across the border. They violated Estonia’s territorial integrity. American equipment and NATO’s Rapid Response Force (TM) neither deterred nor reacted to the attack. In an operation reminiscent of Hamas’s incursions into Israel, “a well-trained and well-armed squad of Russian security operatives crossed into Estonia” and captured Eston Kohver, a counter-intelligence officer whom Russia released back to Estonia one year later in a prisoner exchange that was scheduled to coincide with Vladimir Putin’s visit to the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
NATO’s collective security guarantee is a red line that Russia crossed with impunity. Russia systematically attacks countries seeking to join NATO. Russia annexed territories in Georgia and Ukraine and even tried assassinating the president of Montenegro before it joined NATO. The message is clear: Russia will wage war on countries that want to join NATO and NATO will not fight Russia on behalf of its smallest, newest members.
Such weakness is baked into the text of Article 5. The text does not actually obligate NATO members to go to war for each other. Although “the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” each NATO member merely promises to “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking … such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” Under NATO, military retaliation is merely optional: just as it always is between countries even without a treaty.
There are several reasons why NATO will not defend its smallest members. Partly this is because NATO is incapable: some members have had a free ride on the United States military and have allowed their own defense to deteriorate. Partly it is because some in this generation of European leaders sympathize with Russian interests. On both these fronts, Trump is working to reverse European complacency.
But mostly it’s because war is a hard sell. Europeans have little appetite for warfare and would rather let Russia have its way with Eastern Europe than risk their sons for the sake of a loopholed treaty they don’t believe in anymore. Secretary Mattis is wrong to advise the president that we should depend on such allies for American national security. But he is right that the president deserves “a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
Lew Olowski is an attorney and formerly a clerk to Radovan Karadzic, president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Lew served under Peter Robinson, who is among the world’s premiere international criminal trial lawyers litigating war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. He is a graduate of Georgetown Law School.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.