- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Barely half of NATO’s 29 member-states are on track to meet the minimum spending goal for their defense budgets over the next six years, a development likely to exacerbate tensions between the transatlantic alliance and the Trump White House.

Only eight alliance members — including the U.S. — are meeting the agreed-upon target of spending 2 percent of their country’s gross domestic product on defense, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged in a briefing with reporters Tuesday. Another seven have plans in place to meet the 2 percent goal by 2024, he said during a briefing at NATO headquarters in Brussels, with many countries still falling well short.

“Fair burden-sharing is crucial for our shared security,” the NATO chief said, who still described the forecast “substantial progress and a good start.”

“In 2014, only 3 allies spent 2 percent of GDP or more on defense,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “This year we expect eight allies to meet the target.” But many countries, he added, “still have a long way to go.”

Among the NATO countries not expected to have 2024 spending goals in place include such key alliance members as Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.

The issue of defense spending has occupied center stage since Mr. Trump took office, leading to sometimes testy exchanges between NATO officials and the alliance’s most powerful member. Mr. Trump has insisted that the underspending by some NATO states accepted by previous American administrations would no longer be tolerated.

The shortfalls cited by Mr. Stoltenberg came even as Mr. Trump was contending his pressure was having an effect.

“Because of our actions, money is starting to pour into NATO,” Mr. Trump said during a joint press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis that month. “The money is starting to pour in. Other countries are starting to realize that it’s time to pay up, and they’re doing that. Very proud of that fact.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis is slated to meet with other NATO defense ministers in Brussels Wednesday.

Defense chiefs are expected to discuss a range of topics, from growing Russian aggression in eastern Europe to the future of the fight against Islamic State. Mr. Mattis is expected to raise the issue of collective defense and the alliance’s role in footing the bill.

Mr. Mattis warned NATO leaders on the consequences of not paying their fair share during the alliance’s last major ministerial last February. “The commitment of other nations lags considerably [behind the U.S.] despite benefiting from the best defense in the world,” he said during a speech at NATO headquarters at the time. “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do.”

Mr. Stoltenberg pointed to increased investment by alliance members as one sign that Mr. Trump’s frustrations were being heard.

Canada and its European allies in NATO have increased major weapon buys for the alliance’s collective defense by $19 billion since 2016, he said. The alliance, as a whole, is anticipated to set aside at least 20 percent of their military budgets toward NATO weapons, equipment and operations, Mr. Stoltenberg added.

“This should lead to significant improvements to our forces and their readiness” across the globe, he said. NATO is also setting up an Atlantic Joint Force Command, which will focus on curbing renewed Russian aggression in the Atlantic.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is slated to meet with NATO leaders during this week’s ministerial, to coordinate the new command’s operations with those led by the EU.

In his remarks to reporters, Mr. Stoltenberg also threw his support behind a U.S.-backed proposal to create a formal NATO training mission for Iraqi forces following the recent ouster of Islamic State militants from large swaths of the country. The Reuters news agency reported that Mr. Mattis sent a letter to NATO last month calling for a formal NATO training mission, although the mission will not include a combat role.

“We have to win the peace,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

The NATO defense ministers are expected to approve and expand the mission Thursday, with the mission to launch formally in July.

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