Mattis finds himself in familiar role at NATO gathering, reassuring nervous allies

Defense Secretary James Mattis, center left, meets with members of the U.S. mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, center left, meets with members of the U.S. mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. Department of Defense

As Defense Secretary James Mattis seeks to reassure rattled NATO allies in meetings that started on Wednesday in Brussels, he may find it an easier job after the resignation of President Donald Trump’s controversial national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

While the chaos of the shakeup is likely to cause unease among allies, the general’s influence had long alarmed them; Flynn was among the proponents of Trump’s establishing warmer relations with Russia. During the campaign, Flynn also shaped Trump’s controversial view of the alliance, warning him that allies “don’t pay their bills.”

“Flynn made people nervous, both because of his closeness to Russia and being part of that political inner circle that doesn’t seem to be very stable,” said Mark Cancian, a former Marine colonel who served with Mattis in Iraq and is now a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “The fact that he’s gone, I don’t think European allies will lament that.”

Flynn was forced to resign from his post Monday amid reports that he’d discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia’s ambassador before taking office, then misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about those conversations.

Mattis downplayed the impact of Flynn’s resignation on the NATO meeting, which is being held in the shadow of news reports that the president’s campaign aides had repeated contact with Russian officials.

“Frankly, this has no impact,” Mattis told reporters on his flight to Brussels on Tuesday. “Obviously I haven’t changed what I am heading there for. It doesn’t change my message at all, and who is on the president’s staff is who I will work with.”

Mattis will have to assure NATO allies that Trump remains committed to the 67-year-old trans-Atlantic partnership despite Trump’s comments calling it “obsolete.” Mattis also will host a meeting of defense ministers from nations involved in the coalition to counter the Islamic State before traveling to the Munich Security Conference on Friday.

“Mattis’ role seems to be going around the world reassuring our allies,” Cancian said. “He says, ‘We stand with you,’ and kind of ignores what the president has said in the past, and so far the president hasn’t objected. Mattis is a military guy; you don’t embarrass the boss.”

Trump called the alliance “obsolete” in an interview with The Times of London days before his inauguration. During his campaign, Trump said he would consider cutting ties with nations that failed to contribute the 2 percent of gross domestic product that members are expected to spend on defense. Trump said he was prepared to tell those countries: “Congratulations: You will be defending yourself.”

Although Trump was critical of the alliance long before Flynn became his adviser, the general took credit for shaping his thinking about the partnership on the campaign trail.

“I told him . . . NATO doesn’t pay their bills,” Flynn told ABC News in May, saying he had no problem with Trump “putting NATO on alert.”

At the same time Trump was causing a stir by questioning the alliance in European media, Mattis was stressing its importance in his Senate confirmation hearing.

“If we didn’t have NATO today, we’d need to create it. NATO is vital to our interests,” he said, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to break up the alliance.

“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.

As he arrived in Brussels for this week’s meetings, Mattis called NATO “the most successful military alliance in history.”

But he is also expected to stress Trump’s demand that member countries increase their military spending. NATO officials indicated that the issue of sharing responsibilities “fairly among allies” will be a priority at the meeting among defense ministers.

[READ MORE: Mattis’ pledge on missile system eases worry over Trump’s Asia commitment]

“We will at our meeting stress the importance of fair burden-sharing and higher defense spending for the alliance,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference Tuesday. “After many years with steep cuts in defense spending, we have turned a corner . . . defense spending in real terms has increased by 3.8 percent among European allies and Canada.”

The 28-nation bloc is sworn to come to one another’s defense, and Trump’s indication that he might abandon the partnership caused great concern in Baltic nations that were once part of the Soviet Union. After Russia’s incursion in and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Eastern European countries have been concerned that Moscow might set its sights on their territory, too.

Former heads of NATO raised concerns about Trump’s approach to the alliance before and after his election.

“If America were to disengage from Europe, then you would really risk Russia increasing her influence in Europe, and soon America would experience a more hostile Europe,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in an interview with Politico Europe in August.

Rasmussen, who served as NATO’s leader from 2009 to 2014, said Trump’s “America first” slogan put the 70-year alliance at risk.

“When America retrenches and retreats, it leaves behind a vacuum, and that vacuum is filled by bad guys,” Rasmussen said.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who served as NATO secretary-general from 2004 to 2009, described Trump as “very fond of autocrats” on a call with reporters in November. He expressed concerns that Trump’s praise of Putin on the campaign trail would lead to Ukraine becoming “a bargaining chip . . . in an overall deal between two strongmen.”

Trump has mostly backed off his tough words on the alliance. After meeting with him last month, British Prime Minister Theresa May said he had told her he was “100 percent behind NATO.”

According to readouts provided by the White House, Trump reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO in calls with the leaders of Germany, France, Spain and Turkey, as well as Stoltenberg. Trump also agreed to join other NATO leaders at a meeting in Europe in May.

This is Mattis’ second international trip as Trump’s Pentagon chief. His first trip, to Japan and South Korea earlier this month, had a similar objective, reassuring the Asian allies that the U.S. would continue to stand with them despite fears over Trump’s comments about pulling out troops if they don’t pay more.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen