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Tillerson Talks Tough at NATO Over Military Spending -- WSJ

1 Apr 2017 6:32 am
By Julian E. Barnes 

BRUSSELS -- The Trump administration kept its European allies on edge Friday by dispatching Secretary of State Rex Tillerson here with new and tougher demands that North Atlantic Treaty Organization members boost military spending, clashing with Germany in particular.

The top U.S. diplomat's appearance Friday came as NATO diplomats expressed concerns that the alliance has been whipsawed by the Trump administration, getting understandings from high U.S. officials only to have President Donald Trump send out Twitter messages that appear to counter them.

Like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence on previous occasions, Mr. Tillerson balanced a message of reassurance with a demand for a new commitment from NATO allies to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense.

Mr. Tillerson made clear for the first time that the U.S. wants allies at the May summit of NATO leaders to back a U.S. initiative that would have countries adopt plans to meet alliance spending goals by 2024, and to agree to annual milestones to ensure the target is on track.

"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, " Mr. Tillerson said at a meeting of allied foreign ministers in Brussels.

While many allies accept the U.S. proposal, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel contested the target on Friday. He said it was misguided and unrealistic to think that Germany would be able to raise its defense spending by $37 billion a year to achieve the 2% level. Mr. Gabriel acknowledged the need to spend more on the military, but said true security required spending on foreign assistance, the refuge crisis and other priorities.

NATO diplomats and officials said most allies accept the need to spend more, and the alliance plans to draft a version of the Tillerson spending plan proposal that could be adopted at the May summit.

But some NATO officials worry that even if a careful compromise is reached, Mr. Trump could upend it with a tweet or comment when he arrives in Belgium for the summit to unveil the new NATO headquarters.

After Mr. Trump's meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this month, he made waves in Berlin by tweeting: "Germany owes...vast sums of money to NATO," a charge German officials have dismissed.

The perception of America's unpredictability is complicating talks over the proposal that many say will be difficult given Germany's stepped-up objections to the Trump administration's demands.

On Friday Mr. Gabriel insisted that NATO had no real 2% spending target, noting that members pledged in 2014 only to "aim to move towards" that goal over the next decade. Mr. Gabriel declined to answer questions about whether Germany intended to develop the kind of spending plans Washington is pushing.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg signaled Friday what a compromise might look like. He said alliance members were looking at national plans as a tool not just to drive forward spending, but also to develop new military capabilities for the alliance and boost contributions to NATO missions.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has 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," Mr. Stoltenberg said.

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.

Ms. Merkel has been more supportive of increased spending than Mr. Gabriel, a member of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party that is challenging the chancellor's Christian Democrats in the fall election.

The U.S. has a strong backer in the U.K., whose Defense Secretary Michael Fallon on Friday called on allies to "raise their game" in an appearance in London with Mr. Mattis.

Mr. Trump promised in his first budget proposal to boost U.S. military spending substantially to "rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America at a time we most need it."

Mr. 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.

In London, Mr. Mattis said Russian aggression and the country's alleged interference in foreign elections and in Afghanistan are matters of common concern between the U.S. and the U.K. He accused Moscow of violations of international law, citing its annexation of Crimea and alleged interference in foreign elections. He also said the U.S. has observed "Russian activity vis-à-vis the Taliban" in Afghanistan, but he wasn't specific.

Mr. Fallon said Britain, the U.S. and other allies "need to be extremely watchful now of this persistent pattern of Russian interference."

At the NATO meeting, Mr. Tillerson also took a hard line on Russia, drawing applause from allies after he stressed the importance of a unified stance toward Moscow, according to a State Department official and other diplomats.

He said the U.S. wouldn't accept Russia's attempt to change the border of Ukraine, adding American measures would remain in place "until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered our sanctions," according to a State Department transcript.

--Jason Douglas in London contributed to this article.

Write to Julian E. Barnes at julian.barnes@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 01, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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