By Leonid Bershidsky

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has delivered to America’s allies a message often heard during Donald Trump’s election campaign: Spend more on defense or expect the U.S. to “moderate its commitment to the alliance.” While European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have agreed, they won’t necessarily rush to meet U.S. demands.

In 2014, NATO members reaffirmed their commitment to spend 2 percent of their economic output on defense and 20 percent of that amount “on major new equipment, including related research and development.” The U.S. wants them to stick to these top-line promises. But 2 percent and 20 percent are only numbers. As John Deni of the U.S. Army War College wrote in a 2015 blog post for the Carnegie Endowment, Greece consistently spends 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense — a model U.S. ally on that count — but when it comes to actual fighting, Denmark, which has averaged 1.5 percent of GDP in defense spending since 2000, provides more troops and more aircraft, takes part in riskier missions, and suffers more casualties.

Defense spending is perhaps not the best measure of European countries’ fighting ability. Even if they hit the spending targets, that won’t allow them immediately to boost a measure such as deployability — the share of armed forces structured, prepared and equipped for deployed operations. The NATO requirement is 50 percent. No European country meets it, and, according to the European Defense Agency, the countries that are meeting the 2 percent spending requirement or are eagerly working toward it don’t have the most prepared armies.

Even these numbers may often be less important for NATO burden sharing than political considerations. Ghent University’s Tim Haesenbrouck listed them in a 2016 paper on NATO’s 2011 Libya operation. Countries contribute more if their participation is critical to an operation’s success, which means bigger nations — and those with military budgets that are large in absolute, not relative, terms — are always more committed. But participation decisions are always tempered by other factors, such as a nation’s proximity to the conflict zone, how much it values its alliance with the U.S., and how far off the next election is.

When the U.S. stresses its readiness to meet its NATO responsibilities, as Mattis did in Brussels on Wednesday, the allies understand it as a promise to adhere to Article 5 of the treaty that states that an attack on one is treated as an attack on all. Even under President Trump, Europeans believe it is in the U.S. national interest to honor its Article 5 commitment if a NATO country is attacked by, say, Russia, the bloc’s original adversary.

In NATO’s first major military actions, the U.S. bore most of the operational burden. It flew more than 65 percent of strike operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. It contributed 60 percent of the deployed units in Afghanistan. But Barack Obama was not an interventionist president, and in operation Unified Protector, the Libyan intervention, the U.S. let the European allies do most of the work. France and the U.K. bore the brunt of the fighting, flying two-thirds of the sorties and putting more of their personnel at risk.

For France and Italy, geographic proximity, the potential for a large refugee influx and economic interests were major stimulants. Countries such as Denmark and Norway consider Atlanticism a mainstay of their foreign policy, so they usually participate in NATO action to the degree that they can to let the U.S. know they are strong allies. Besides, for Northern European countries, voters expect their militaries to help mitigate humanitarian disasters. German voters couldn’t understand why Libya mattered to them, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government kept out.

European NATO members know now that they may have to play leading roles in future NATO operations if the action takes place in an area that’s more important to them than to the United States. That’s especially so, as Haesenbrouck noted, when Washington makes clear it is not willing to act or only wants a minor role.

That, essentially, is what Mattis was telling his NATO counterparts on Wednesday. A less interventionist administration in Washington may even be welcomed — at least Europe won’t be pressured to send troops into conflicts that are a tough political sell. And they won’t be particularly eager for a greater role in operations that are primarily U.S. business — such as the next Iraq or Afghanistan. But Libya showed that they can act when required. Even if Libya’s subsequent chaos is often portrayed as the result of a mission, the intervention itself was successful and NATO suffered no losses.

For Poland and other eastern European nations, the hypothetical threat is bigger than for other Europeans. Their voters remember living in the Soviet sphere of influence; for them, defense spending is about ties with the U.S., and an insurance policy. But when other European countries increase their defense spending, it is largely because they understand they may be required to take the lead in European security as the U.S. recedes.

In that sense, they have already internalized Mattis’s threat. If the Trump administration proves as uninterested in global affairs as its first month has shown, these countries will just keep moving toward alternative security arrangements that are already under discussion.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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