- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2020

The sudden economic crash sparked by the global COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into question one of President Trump’s signature foreign policy goals: getting U.S. allies, particularly NATO members, to pay more for their own defense.

The issue lurked in the backdrop Thursday as NATO foreign ministers held their first-ever summit via teleconference. The meeting focused less on budget issues than on the alliance’s scramble to airlift medical supplies to nations in desperate need.

U.S. officials suggested that the Trump administration has put on the back burner its pressure campaign on NATO nations to boost their defense spending to the agreed-upon goal of at least of 2% of gross domestic product by 2024. It’s an acknowledgement that market nosedives and vast domestic spending demands across Europe have rendered the issue temporarily moot.

Getting allies to pay more for U.S. military protection has been a prime foreign policy goal of Mr. Trump’s presidency. He has frequently excoriated allies such as Germany that he says are not paying their fair share. The U.S. and South Korea, a key Asian ally, are also at loggerheads over Mr. Trump’s demand for a massive increase in what Seoul pays annually for the American troop deployment on the peninsula.

Mr. Trump last year hosted a luncheon in London for the minority of NATO states that, like the U.S., are at or above the defense spending target.

But there is no question that traditional military spending has fallen sharply on the priority list as countries try to contain the coronavirus.

“The COVID-19 crisis has reinforced our resolve to work together as close allies,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Carla M. Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told The Washington Times. “Our collective response to the pandemic has become the top priority for all NATO members.”

While U.S. officials steered clear of commenting on individual NATO members Thursday, Col. Gleason stressed that the collective crisis response “will not come at the expense of our readiness or our ability to ensure effective defense and deterrence.”

But questions are swirling over the extent to which the pandemic will wreak budget havoc among U.S. allies, even if friendly militaries are doling out funds to coordinate international response efforts to the coronavirus outbreak.

“One of the first casualties of the virus may well be European defense spending, which long has taken a back seat to domestic spending in most EU states that also are NATO members. This is especially the case in Western Europe,” said Dov S. Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller.

Now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Mr. Zakheim argued in an analysis published by The Hill on March 16 that “it likely will take the European NATO states considerably longer” to reach the 2% goal.

Drop-off coming

NATO’s annual report in March found that nine countries, including the United States, were at or above the 2% target in 2019 and other big allies, including France and Turkey, were not far off. But with deep recessions from the coronavirus outbreak expected to shrink GDPs and shred tax bases, defense spending tied to GDP levels will drop off over the coming year.

Carlo Masala, a professor for International Politics at Bundeswehr University Munich, told the Reuters news agency that the result means Germany’s current spending of 1.35% of GDP could rise closer to 1.7%, given the prospect of overall GDP shrinkage.

Two senior NATO diplomats told the news agency that there is recognition within the alliance that Italy and Spain, the NATO nations facing the worst of the pandemic and already with relatively light military budgets, are not expected to be able to meet the 2% goal by the 2024 deadline.

A joint NATO declaration Thursday suggested spending fights were among the last things anyone wanted to raise during the teleconference.

“Allies are supporting each other — including with medical professionals, hospital beds, vital medical equipment, and best practices and ideas on how to fight this deadly disease,” the declaration said. “We are airlifting critical medical supplies from across the globe, providing medical personnel, essential materials, and vital equipment from military and civilian sources, and harnessing our medical, scientific, and technological knowledge and resources to help deliver innovative responses.”

The message came on the heels of reports that even Turkey, a NATO member that has riled the alliance over the past year by its overtures to Russia — even buying an advanced Russian missile defense system over U.S. and NATO complaints — has begun coming through with much-needed medical equipment deliveries.

The Financial Times noted that Turkish supplies to battle the coronavirus arrived in Italy and Spain a day earlier in crates marked with the words of the 13th-century Islamic scholar and poet Rumi: “There is hope after despair and many suns after darkness.”

Clash with South Korea

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. was pressing other allies, including South Korea and Japan, to bear more of the joint defense spending burden.

Even as Seoul and Washington were dealing with the public health crisis, the Pentagon went forward Wednesday with furloughs of roughly 4,500 South Koreans who work for the U.S. military amid a nasty dispute over how much the South Korean government contributes to the upkeep of the U.S. forces.

Months of bilateral talks have failed to reach a defense cost-sharing deal and renew the Special Measures Agreement on defense spending. South Korea paid about $800 million last year, and Mr. Trump at one point said he wanted the next annual payment to be $5 billion. South Korean officials said that amount would be impossible to meet.

Talks on the Special Measures Agreement have failed to produce a compromise. Defense Secretary Mark Esper made headlines during a visit to Seoul in November when he said South Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more.”

The announcement Wednesday of unpaid leave for the 4,500 South Korean workers, whose salaries come from funds put up by the South Korean government, marked the latest flashpoint in stalled talks on the issue. The workers represent roughly half the total number of South Koreans working to support U.S. forces in the country.

U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert B. “Abe” Abrams expressed regret over the development in a statement, calling it “unthinkable” and “heartbreaking.”

“The partial furlough of [South Korean] employees is not what we envisioned or hoped what would happen,” he said. “The furlough is in no way a reflection of their performance, dedication or conduct, but rather due to a lack of a burden-sharing agreement.”

The issue has become a political sore point in South Korea, where government officials argue that Washington undercounts other ways Seoul contributes to the alliance and underwrites its costs. The government of President Moon Jae-in faces parliamentary elections April 15, making a compromise difficult in the short term.

Army Lt. Col. David Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman for Indo-Asia Pacific security affairs, also expressed regret at the impasse but signaled in a statement that Washington was not backing down from its demands.

“The sooner the U.S. and [South Korea] can reach agreement, the better,” Col. Eastburn said. “However, we are certain the State Department will not rush to a bad agreement. We need the right agreement, which provides for fair and equitable burden-sharing.”

South Korean media accounts say the two sides may be nearing a deal, although Mr. Trump reportedly vetoed a tentative deal as insufficient. The Trump administration is reportedly driving a hard bargain in part in hopes of using the South Korean deal as a template for other allies’ defense payments.

But Alexander Vershbow, a retired veteran U.S. diplomat who was ambassador to South Korea from 2005 to 2008, recently warned that the hard-nosed talks could leave some scars.

“If the president is really trying to drive such a huge bargain, he may get his way. At the end of the day the Koreans can probably find the money,” Mr. Vershbow told the Atlantic Council in February, according to an account in the Military Times. “But it’s going to have a tremendously damaging effect on public support in the alliance in Korea. It could be a pyrrhic victory for the U.S. if it forces a fairly one-sided compromise.”

⦁ Mike Glenn contributed to this report.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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