NATO Allies Push Back After Trump Scolds Them on Defense Budgets

(Bloomberg) -- European nations and Canada pushed back against accusations they don’t spend enough on defense after receiving a scolding from U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump, who travels to Brussels next week to attend a potentially testy North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, sent letters to several allied nations calling on them to increase their military budgets.

“It will become increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries continue to fail to meet our shared collective security commitments,” Trump said in a letter addressed to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg seen by Bloomberg News. Norway, he wrote, “remains the only NATO ally sharing a border with Russia that lacks a credible plan to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense.”

Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and Spain also confirmed receiving a version of the letter. The New York Times, in a report Tuesday, said it was sent to Belgium, Luxembourg and Portugal too. One NATO country government official, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the July 11-12 summit, said they understood that all members of the bloc received a letter.

At a NATO leaders’ meeting in May 2017, Trump refused to offer an explicit endorsement of the alliance’s collective-defense clause and instead hectored fellow leaders to meet the 2 percent target. Concern is running high in many European capitals over the outcome of this year’s summit after Trump last month revoked his endorsement of a Group of Seven communique praising free trade, insulted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then scheduled a July 16 meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump, though, is committed to the NATO alliance, said a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke Jensen said in a statement confirming receipt of the letter that Norway has increased defense spending 24 percent in real terms since 2013, and that spending on equipment is 27 percent of its budget, above the NATO average. Norway has recently taken delivery of Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters and Boeing P-8 surveillance aircraft. “Burden sharing will be a key issue at the NATO Summit in July, and Norway looks forward to continued discussions on this issue,” Jensen said.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters in Rome that his country “is contributing, but the forms of contribution aren’t measured just in economic terms.” Italy also contributes with “missions that are strategic for NATO,” he said.

Italy is home to U.S. naval, air force, and intelligence bases, and the country is involved in military missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Turkey, Kosovo, Lebanon, Somalia and the Baltic States.

The Netherlands received Trump’s letter last week, and the issue was discussed during Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s visit to the White House on Monday, a spokesman said. Rutte said he understands Trump’s call for more spending and that his cabinet will be allocating more money to defense.

Canada in 2017 committed to increase defense spending by more than 70 percent over the following decade. “This plan has been rigorously costed, is fully funded, and serves Canada’s defense needs,” Renée Filiatrault, spokeswoman for Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, said in a statement. “Canada is proud to have contributed to every NATO operation since the founding of the Alliance more than six decades ago.”

NATO said last month its European members and Canada would increase defense spending for a fourth year in 2018. Spending will rise 3.8 percent, bringing cumulative growth since the start of 2015 to about 15 percent or $87.3 billion.

In 2014, NATO members pledged to spend at least 2 percent of economic output on defense by 2024. In Europe, only Estonia, Greece and the U.K. achieved the goal last year. Poland, one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies, was at 1.99 percent. The U.S. led with expenditure of 3.6 percent of GDP, while Canada was at 1.3 percent.

U.S. administrations including President Barack Obama’s have long pushed European governments to boost their defense spending, but Trump has taken those calls to a new level with tweets conflating defense spending with access to U.S. markets for European cars.

At the same time, European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said Trump’s isolationist policies should convince Europeans to increasingly take care of their own security. European Union nations agreed at a summit last week in Brussels to boost their defense cooperation.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Berlin that Trump’s letter “shows interest in the material and how relevant NATO is -- and the common goal that is being reinforced.”

All the same, Germany doesn’t aim to “impress” anybody, she said. “We’re on our way there --- and we’re prepared, as we show, to take on responsibility in the alliance” with military contributions and capabilities.

“The letter doesn’t add anything to what we already talked about with President Trump in person,” Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said in Santander, Spain. “We explained to President Trump that while it’s true that we spend 1 percent of our GDP, that spending is very active.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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