Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to reassure America's nervous European counterparts over Washington's commitment to NATO on Friday but it didn't quite work out as expected when he pressed them again to spend more on defense, triggering a sharp rebuke from Germany.
“As President Trump has made clear, it is no longer sustainable for the U.S. to maintain a disproportionate share of NATO’s defense expenditures,” Tillerson said at a meeting of allied foreign ministers in Brussels.
Repeating what Trump told Angela Merkel during her US visit (when the US president reportedly handed the Chancellor an invoice for $375 billion for "overdue" NATO defense expenses) Tillerson said he wants member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to agree at their summit in May to increase such spending by the end of the year or to make concrete plans to reach? 2% of gross domestic product by 2024—a target the Germans have contested.
What set off NATO ally anger however was Tillerson's suggestion that the U.S. would prefer to micromanage the process, and wants to see annual milestones that would ensure the defense investment pledge? is implemented by the 2024 deadline, the WSJ reported.
Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel was particularly incensed, acknowledging that while Germany should spend more, he said demands for spending 2% of GDP were “totally unrealistic.” To meet the U.S. target, he said, Germany would have to increase spending by some €35 billion ($37 billion).
"Two percent would mean military expenses of some €70 billion. I don't know any German politician who would claim that is reachable nor desirable," Gabriel told the first meeting of NATO foreign ministers attended by Tillerson.
"The United States will realize it is better to talk about better spending instead of more spending," he said, noting that humanitarian, development and economic aid to stabilize countries and regions should also count.
As the WSJ adds, Gabriel declined to answer questions about whether Germany intended to develop the kind of spending plans pushed by the U.S. Raising German military spending—now at about 1.2% of GDP—has long been seen by the U.S. as key to Europe shouldering more of its own defense.
Gabriel, a member of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, has stepped up his criticism of further spending increases as September elections near, arguing that a strong defense isn't enough to ensure security.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, of the ruling Christian Democrats, has been more supportive of increased military spending than the SPD, who is a junior partner in her governing coalition.
Germany's anger erupted first shortly after Trump’s meeting with Merkel earlier this month, when he made waves in Berlin by tweeting that “Germany owes…vast sums of money to NATO," an accusation that roiled German officials.
Despite Germany's rebuke, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg embraced the push by the U.S. and said Europe must raise its spending and improve its military capabilities. “Increased military spending isn't about pleasing the United States. It is about investing more in European security because it is important to Europe,” Stoltenberg said.
Stoltenberg noted that the U.S. has demonstrated its commitment, including by adding troops in Eastern Europe this year as part of a force meant to deter Russia. While Stoltenberg rejected Gabriel's call to include non-military spending toward the goal, he said Germany was moving "in the right direction" with more military spending after years of cuts.
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Meanwhile, Tillerson remained unswayed, and said allies will need to pay up or outline plans for meeting that target when NATO leaders meet on May 25 - the first NATO which will be attended by Trump himself. Trump has famously criticized NATO as "obsolete" and suggested Washington's security guarantees for European allies could be conditional on them spending more on their own defense. He has also said he wants NATO to do more to fight terrorism.
"Our goal should be to agree at the May leaders meeting that by the end of the year all allies will have either met the pledge guidelines or will have developed plans that clearly articulate how...the pledge will be fulfilled," Tillerson said.
U.S. defense expenditure makes up about 70 percent of the total NATO allies' defense spending. Only four European NATO members - Estonia, Greece, Poland and Britain - meet the two-percent target.
While US demands for more money from NATO allies did not sit well with Germany, Tillerson did offer assurances of Washington's commitment to NATO during his brief stop in Brussels, although U.S. officials said he did not have time for one-on-one meetings, which according to Reuters are customary during such gatherings. As previously reported, Tillerson's initial decision to skip his first meeting with NATO foreign ministers while keeping his commitment for a trip to Russia, sparked a media frenzy added to questions about the Trump administration's commitment. The meeting was later rescheduled and he attended on Friday.
"The United States is committed to ensuring NATO has the capabilities to support our collective defense," Tillerson said. "We will uphold the agreements we have made to defend our allies."
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Finally, in keeping with the recent momentum of renewed deterioration in relations US-Russian relations, Tillerson said NATO was fundamental to countering Russian aggression in Ukraine. As Bloomberg reports, "Tillerson sought to assuage worries that the new administration would seek closer ties with Russia at NATO’s expense, particularly after Trump said during the 2016 presidential campaign that the alliance was “obsolete."
“Let me be very clear at the outset of my remarks: the U.S. commitment to NATO is strong and this alliance remains the bedrock for trans-Atlantic security,” Tillerson said Friday in Brussels. “The NATO alliance is also fundamental to countering both nonviolent, but at times violent, Russian agitation and Russian aggression.”
He said U.S. sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea “will remain until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered our sanctions” and “we will continue to hold Russia accountable.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired general known for his straight talk, was even more outspoken. At a briefing in London on Friday, he said Russia’s “violations of international law are now a matter of record -- from what happened with Crimea to other aspects of their behavior in mucking around inside other people’s elections, that sort of thing.”
It was a blunt reference to Russia’s hacking and leaking of Democratic documents in last year’s American presidential election, a campaign that U.S. intelligence agencies found was aimed at hurting Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton and ultimately at helping him win.
Meanwhile, as relations between the Kremlin and the White House deteriorate with every passing day before Trump has even met with Putin, accusations that Trump is a puppet of the Kremlin remain the topic du jour across the US media.