BRUSSELS -- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday ratcheted up pressure on NATO allies to increase their defense spending, as Germany's top diplomat pushed back against President Donald Trump's effort to boost the military budgets of members of the Western military alliance.
The meeting of NATO's 28 foreign ministers -- hastily rescheduled after Tillerson initially announced that he would skip it in favor of a meeting with China's leader -- came as fears surfaced about the United States' commitment to the alliance after Trump's calls to increase spending. Tillerson said he wanted NATO leaders to agree at a May summit to come up with concrete plans by the end of the year to meet budget guidelines.
"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 told the foreign ministers. "Allies must increase defense spending."
The effort came after resistance from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who said that the push from Washington was unrealistic and was based on a mistaken interpretation of the spending targets, which are not binding. Germany is NATO's largest economy after the United States, but it lags far behind in its defense spending. Twisting Germany's arm to increase its military efforts is key to Trump's effort to pass some of Europe's defense burdens back to U.S. partners.
"More money doesn't mean more security," said Gabriel, who is a member of Germany's Social Democratic Party and has long been skeptical of defense-spending increases. He said that to expect Germany to reach NATO spending guidelines would require an additional $37 billion a year and was "totally unrealistic."
"I don't know a politician in Germany who believes that this would be achievable or even desirable," Gabriel said.
He said security is also about crisis prevention, not just combat, and noted that Germany spends a lot of money on refugees who arrive because military interventions have failed.
NATO leaders have pledged to increase annual defense outlays to 2 percent of their gross domestic products by 2024, but the targets were not requirements.
Only four nations besides the U.S. currently meet the target: the United Kingdom, Estonia, Greece and Poland. Seven countries -- including Canada, Italy and Spain -- virtually would have to double their spending to reach the target.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said that beyond money, "it's also really important to look at capabilities and what countries are actually doing."
"We really feel that we're doing our share," she said, highlighting Canada's troop deployment to Latvia to help deter Russian aggression.
Tillerson did not say what would happen if European allies and Canada fail to respect their pledges. During election campaigning, Trump suggested that he might not come to the defense of those allies who do not do their fair share.
"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, with annual milestone progress commitments, the pledge will be fulfilled," Tillerson told the ministers.
However, Tillerson sought to calm any fears, saying Friday that "we understand that a threat against one of us is a threat against all of us, and we will respond accordingly. We will uphold the agreements we have made to defend our allies."
The United States is by far NATO's most powerful ally. It spends more on defense than all the others combined; 3.61 percent of GDP in 2016, according to NATO estimates, although U.S. spending, too, has tapered off in recent years.
After Trump met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in mid-March, he wrote on Twitter that "Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!"
Germany spent 1.19 percent of its overall budget on defense last year.
Merkel and her Christian Democratic allies, who rule in a coalition with Gabriel's party, have been more willing than Gabriel to entertain Trump's requests. Defense increases are broadly unpopular in Germany ahead of September elections, and some of Gabriel's aggressive push was for domestic consumption. But he rejected out of hand Tillerson's proposal that nations create spending plans with specific, year-by-year targets, setting up a showdown for the May summit.
NATO diplomats said that the private meetings with Tillerson were cordial. But some quietly criticized him for spending less than five hours on the ground in Brussels before returning to the United States before the meetings fully finished. Previous secretaries of state often have given news conferences at the end of such conclaves; Tillerson took no questions in Brussels.
Tillerson also urged NATO to do more to fight the Islamic State group and other extremists, notably by countering the militants' online messaging and propaganda, but he offered no concrete requests and said that the Trump administration still was working on specific roles in which NATO could do more.
Although NATO has increased training for Iraqi troops and offered its surveillance planes to help efforts to defeat the Islamic State group, many alliance nations remain skeptical that NATO's structures are well-suited for counterterrorism.
NATO has fought insurgents in Afghanistan, and is training Iraqi officers so that local forces can make a strong stand against extremists. There is no appetite to deploy troops in counterterrorism operations. Allies believe that the international coalition against ISIS should be leading combat operations, not NATO.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the lesson learned from operations in Afghanistan, but also in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, is that "in the long run it is much better to fight terrorism and project stability by training local forces, building local security institutions, instead of NATO deploying a large number of combat troops."
Information for this article was contributed by Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post and by Lorne Cook and Sylvain Plazy of The Associated Press.
A Section on 04/01/2017
Print Headline: Tillerson pressures allies on defense-budget targets