NATO marked the start of its eight decade with gatherings that honored its achievements in keeping the former Soviet Union at bay and protecting former Warsaw Pact nations — but revealed modern strains over spending and strategies towards Russian and Chinese geopolitical ambitions.
In Warsaw, ministers from Central and Eastern Europe warily eyed Russia’s military activities. In Washington, where NATO was born, China was foremost on the alliance’s list of concerns.
“Especially at a time when Russia is repeatedly trying to test our unity, we must and will stand united,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a speech in Washington.
“China is set to become the subject of the 21st century – on both sides of the Atlantic,” he said. “There are security implications, but China is a challenge on almost every topic, and we must gain the better understanding what that implies for NATO.”
America’s top diplomat, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urged more unity against common threats, but ignored U.S. President Donald Trump’s own antagonistic stance towards the alliance.
With the United States paying US$686 billion of NATO’s US$957 billion budget in 2017, Pompeo hammered on Trump’s theme that all alliance members must dramatically increase their defense spending — an admonition that has rankled NATO members.
“It’s important for them to make the case to their citizenry why collective deterrence is necessary,” Pompeo told reporters.
Pompeo told the meeting that NATO must adapt to “confront emerging threats too, whether that’s Russian aggression, uncontrolled migration, cyberattacks, threats to energy security, Chinese strategic competition including technology and 5G.”
The Pentagon halted the delivery of F-35 fighter jet equipment to Turkey over its decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 air defense missile system. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Turkey now “must choose” whether to stay in NATO or keep on “making such reckless decisions.”
Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland also exposed the strains in U.S.-Canada relations, saying the Trump administration’s decision to impose tariffs on steel on national security grounds — essentially labeling Canada a national security threat — were “absurd” and “groundless.”
Thirty foreign ministers met at the U.S. State Department in Washington, where the North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949. The military alliance to enforce the treaty took effect later that summer, aimed at preventing the Soviet Union from trying to invade Western Europe.
NATO now has about 20,000 military personnel engaged in operations and missions around the world. It leads operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Mediterranean, and it also supports the African Union, conducts air patrols over the Baltic and provides air defense in Turkey.
— NATO (@NATO) April 5, 2019
Military spending in focus
At the meeting in Washington, Pence also criticized Germany. He said it needed to pay more for defense and end its huge undersea pipeline project on the northeastern Baltic coast that would double the amount of gas Russia could directly send to German consumers.
“Germany must do more. And we cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on Russia,” Pence said.
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed those remarks while emphasizing that NATO members had already pledged to boost their defense spending to 2 percent of GDP.
“And I expect all allies, including Germany of course, to make good on the pledge we made together,” he said. “We didn’t make this pledge to please the United States, we made it because we live in a more unpredictable and more uncertain world.”
Germany’s Maas, however, said diplomats must talk about more than commitments to boost spending. “NATO may be a security alliance, but above all it’s an alliance of values, and it has a political function,” he said.
During his campaign for the White House, Trump called NATO “obsolete” and even suggested the United States might not rally to the defense of the alliance’s members if they were attacked.
Last year, Trump further strained the alliance with his suggestion NATO allies should spend as much as 4 percent of GDP on defense. That would have doubled the current target of 2 percent by 2024. He claimed Germany was compromised by its reliance on Russian energy.
NATO leaders ignored Trump’s suggestion, instead agreeing to a formal declaration that simply reaffirmed their “unwavering commitment” to the 2 percent pledge set in 2014.
Stoltenberg, who twice served as Norway’s prime minister, told the meeting in Washington that members increased their investment in NATO’s defenses over the past four consecutive years, not only by spending more but also by investing in new capabilities and deploying more forces for the alliance.
“Since 2016, European Allies and Canada have added US$41 billion dollars to their defense spending; by the end of next year, this will rise to US$100 billion,” he said.