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NATO defense ministers put aside tariff tensions

June 7, 2018

NATO defense ministers have unveiled a new plan to bolster troop numbers, aircraft and navy vessels on the European continent. The initiative comes despite a festering trans-Atlantic trade dispute.

NATO Hauptquartier in Belgien Brüssel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Waem

NATO defense ministers tried to put aside frustrations over the US' newly imposed steel tariffs during Thursday's Brussels summit by rallying around their latest plans to bolster troop levels in Europe.

In a bid to reinforce their presence in the event of a crisis in Europe, the new "Four Thirties" initiative will enable NATO members mobilize 30 land battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat vessels within 30 days. The plan will comprise of around 30,000 troops, 300 aircraft and at least 30 vessels or submarines.

Fallon: 'Defense is for NATO, not for EU'

Defense ministers also agreed on Thursday to staff the two new NATO command centers in Norfolk, Virginia and Ulm, Germany with more than 1,200 personnel.

"We have decided further steps to strengthen our shared security and boost defense and deterrence against threats from any direction," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. The two new commands would help "ensure we have the right forces in the right place at the right time," he added.

Read more: NATO to increase quick-response troops and arms

NATO chief dismisses tariff tensions

Thursday's summit marked the first time NATO officials had met since US President Donald Trump imposed steel tariffs on European allies and Canada.

Stoltenberg dismissed any notion that festering trade tensions had threatened to overshadow the Brussels summit. "There are differences related to issues like trade, the Iran nuclear deal and climate change," he said. "We have disagreements between NATO allies, but we stand together in NATO when it comes to the core task of NATO ... to protect each other."

The tariffs have also been a delicate issue for US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who had placed great emphasis on strengthening US ties with its western allies. Asked whether the trade restrictions threatened to hurt defense ties, Mattis said: ""Right now I don't see that ... And I think it's still premature to call it a trade war."

Defense spending up, but Germany still likely to face Trump's ire

Stoltenberg also praised plans by NATO allies, excluding the US, to up their defense budgets by almost 4 percent compared to the previous year.

The issue of defense spending — or "burden-sharing" in NATO speak — has been at the forefront of talks since US President Donald Trump chided allies for not meeting the 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) spending target, agreed during 2014's summit in Wales.

Read more: Can the trans-Atlantic relationship survive Donald Trump?

During last year's NATO leaders' summit, Trump embarrassed NATO allies outside their new billion-euro headquarters by publicly berating them for failing to spend enough on their defense budgets.

Trump blasts Germany on NATO contributions

The US currently accounts for almost 72 percent of all NATO spending, while only three European nations have hit the 2 percent target — the UK, Greece and Estonia. Officials hope that four more nations — Poland, Romania, Latvia and Lithuania — will join the list by the upcoming July summit.

Germany, which has been singled out by Trump for criticism, has also vowed to increase its defense budget by €3 billion over the next year, bringing total spending up to €41.5 billion.

The figure, however, still falls short of the 2 percent target, amounting to just over 1.3 percent of GDP. On Wednesday German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated that defense spending was set to rise to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2025.

Read more: How does Germany contribute to NATO?

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said her country still fully backed NATO's  2 percent goal and that extra funds would go towards modernizing the Bundeswehr. "When I speak to Americans they are always impressed when they realize that since the 2014 NATO summit in Wales we will have achieved an increase of 80 per cent in a decade," she said.

Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said the US was "encouraged by Germany's effort," although Trump's NATO envoy, Kay Bailey Hutchison, stressed the spending issue would remain a sore point for the president.

Ben Hodges on Conflict Zone

dm/bw (AP, dpa, Reuters, AFP)