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Mattis warns NATO member nations: Pull your economic weight or US may step back

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Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, USMC (Ret.), on Capitol Hill. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Secretary of Defense James Mattis reaffirmed U.S. commitment to NATO Wednesday, CNN reported, but warned other member nations they must meet the alliance's financial requirements or that commitment could be moderated.

Mattis met with defense officials from the 27 other NATO member nations in Brussels and made his first address to the alliance as U.S. defense secretary. In the speech, he called the NATO alliance the "fundamental bedrock for the U.S. and all the transatlantic community," according to CNN.

However, because only five of the member nations currently meet the spending target — 2 percent of their gross domestic product must be spent on defense — required for membership, Mattis issued a strong directive to alliance members regarding the need for a renewed focus on meeting the financial requirement for membership. The five nations that currently meet the NATO spending requirement are the United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland, Greece and the United States.

"No longer can the American taxpayer carry a disproportionate share of the defense of western values," Mattis said, CNN reported. "Americans cannot care more for your children's security than you do. 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."

Mattis was NATO’s supreme allied commander of transformation from November 2007 to September 2009. He told defense ministers that he recalled how, at the time, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates had warned NATO nations that the U.S. Congress and the American people “would lose their patience for carrying a disproportionate burden” of the defense of allies.

That impatience has now been realized, he said, calling it a “governmental reality.”

France, Turkey, Germany, Italy and Canada are among the major western nations that take part in the alliance but have not met the 2 percent spending mandate, according to NATO figures, the Washington Post reported. The other member nations have pledged to increase their defense spending to meet the target beginning in 2024.

The meeting of the defense ministers comes as the member nations begin discussion about Russia and the appropriate response to the nation's 2014 annexation of Crimea, according to the Post.

“Fellow ministers, when the Cold War ended we all had hopes,” Mattis told his colleagues in Brussels. “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 [the Islamic State] emerged and introduced a ruthless breed of terror, intent on seizing territory and establishing a caliphate. While these events have unfolded before our eyes, some in this alliance have looked away in denial of what was happening.”

Mattis further stressed that there is hope for a better relationship with Russia if member nations employ a policy of strength in negotiations.

"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," he said.

President Donald Trump has been critical of NATO in the past, saying during a joint interview with the Times of London and the German publication Bild in January that the alliance "had problems."

"Number one, it was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago [and] number two, the countries weren't paying what they're supposed to be paying," Trump said.

He was more complimentary of the alliance in February while addressing U.S. Central Command in Florida.

"We strongly support NATO," he said. "We only ask that all of the NATO members make their full and proper financial contributions to the NATO alliance, which many of them have not been doing. Many of them have not been even close. And they have to do that."

According to CNN, Mattis asked NATO defense ministers to draft a plan ensuring NATO is not in the same situation this time next year and urged member states to increase defense spending to meet the 2 percent target.

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