First came the praise, then the criticism.
Speaking at his first NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State James Mattis hailed the military alliance as the “fundamental bedrock” of trans-Atlantic cooperation and reaffirmed his country’s continued commitment.
But Mr. Mattis was quick to reiterate President Donald Trump’s demand that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and warned that Washington would confront those who fail to pull their weight financially.
“It’s a fair demand that all who benefit from the best defense in the world carry their proportionate share of the necessary cost to defend freedom,” he told reporters at the start of the talks Wednesday.
Mr. Trump has long argued that the U.S. bears too large a share of NATO’s financial burden and that the other member countries need to step up to the plate, fast.
Last year, only five of the 28 member states – the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece and Estonia – met the agreed spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Currently, the U.S. accounts for about 70 percent of the alliance’s overall defense expenditure.
Joining Mr. Mattis at the press conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized the need for alliance members to accept the U.S. president’s demand for “fair burden-sharing” and to increase spending. And that, he added, “is exactly what we’re doing.”
“It’s a fair demand that all who benefit from the best defense in the world carry their proportionate share of the necessary cost to defend freedom”
According to Mr. Stoltenberg, defense expenditures increased in 2016 for the first time since 2009. Among European countries and Canada, it grew 3.8 percent, or about $10 billion.
There’s a recognition in Europe’s largest economy too: “We Europeans need to do more to ensure our European security and that means investing,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters ahead of the Brussel talks, echoing comments made last week in her first visit to the United States under the Trump administration. Germany, she said, needs to invest more in its military, the Bundeswehr, and “that means increasing its budget.”
Germany is boosting military spending by nearly €2 billion ($2.1 billion) in 2017 to €37 billion, or 1.2 percent of GDP. Spending is due to reach € 39.2 billion by 2020 but is still short of the 2 percent NATO target.
The new U.S. defense secretary arrived in Brussels amid a backdrop of concerns about the Trump administration.
A month ago, Mr. Trump rattled his defense allies when the called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete” and said it “was not bothered about terrorism,” in a joint interview with the German Bild newspaper and the Times in London, in which he also threatened import taxes on German carmakers.
Mr. Mattis’ visit has also been overshadowed by the resignation of the president’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, over allegations that he had discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia before taking office. Less than a month on the job, Mr. Flynn had the briefest tenure of any national security advisor in U.S. history.
Also of concern at the meeting is a New York Times report that Moscow had deployed a new cruise missile, violating a treaty banning ground-based U.S. and Russian intermediate-range missiles.
Mr. Stoltenberg said the military alliance would have “serious concerns” if reports that Russia had violated the Cold War treaty proved true.
Defense ministers also aim to use the meeting to discuss another Trump priority: increasing NATO’s role in counter-terrorism operations. Currently, the alliance’s involvement in this area is limited mostly to raising countries’ awareness of terrorists threats and providing AWACS surveillance aircraft.
After talks in Brussles, which end on Thursday, Mr. Mattis and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will attend the Munich Security Conference over the weekend.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org