BRUSSELS ― Newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is pressing NATO allies on an old theme ― that alliance members pay their way.
He spent his first full day in office Friday in Brussels participating in his first NATO foreign ministers meeting.
In closed-door meetings, Pompeo in particular pressed allies to increase their military budgets to meet a target of 2 percent of economic output spent on defense every year by 2024, as well as ensuring 20 percent of the outlay is on equipment.
Washington wants NATO allies to increase their military spending and thus reduce the burden placed on the U.S., the alliance’s militarily strongest member.
However, some allies, including Germany, are reluctant to meet a commitment made at a NATO summit in Wales in September 2016 to meet the 2 percent target. NATO allies are generally now spending more on defense, but currently Germany spends 1.24 percent of its gross domestic product on defense and plans only to increase this to 1.25 percent by 2021.
A U.S source confirmed that at the meeting Pompeo had pressed allies to raise military budgets, saying that the priorities of the ministerial meeting for the United States were increased burden-sharing, building up deterrence and defense, and strengthening NATO’s role in countering terrorism.
Meanwhile in the U.S, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting Washington for a much-anticipated meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, following French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent three-day state visit to the capital.
“I accept that, step by step, Germany will have to increase its contributions over the next few years,” Merkel said during a Friday news conference alongside Trump. “I am proud of our contribution to NATO but realize that we have to assume more responsibility. We in Europe can no longer rely on the U.S. to come to our aid, so we all have to increase our contributions to NATO.”
The NATO foreign ministers meeting follows the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian agent in Britain, as well as Western airstrikes against Russia-allied Syria. According to a NATO source, Pompeo and NATO ministers agreed on the need for a response to “Russian aggression.”
“We continue to see attempts to intimidate and interfere in allied countries, so we must continue to adapt to hybrid challenges, and ministers will examine what more we can do,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Speaking on Friday, Stoltenberg said Russia’s actions in Georgia, annexation of Crimea, interference in Ukraine, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns concern NATO and has caused the alliance to beef up its deterrence posture.
“Russia also backs the brutal regime in Syria, which has repeatedly used chemical weapons, and it is also highly likely that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack in Salisbury,” the secretary general said. “NATO has responded with resolve and unity.”
Friday’s meeting helped to set up the NATO summit, scheduled to take place in Brussels in July, along with the next defense ministers’ meeting in May.
This was Pompeo’s first time in Brussels since he was sworn in Thursday. Despite Trump’s earlier rebuke of the alliance as “obsolete,” Pompeo, a former Army officer and former Republican congressman, was quick to praise NATO as “invaluable.”
“The work that is being done here today is invaluable and our objectives are important and this mission means a lot to the United States of America,” he said.
Pompeo, also a former CIA director, is due to visit Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel during the weekend.
His presence at NATO was seen as an important signal for the organization, and Stoltenberg described the visit as “a great expression of the importance of the alliance”; Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said it was “impressive to come here one night after being inaugurated. It’s an impressive start.”
NATO foreign ministers discussed at their meeting a wide range of issues, from Russia to the Middle East. They also examined the NATO mission in Afghanistan, with Stoltenberg saying the alliance welcomed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s “unprecedented” offer of peace talks to the Taliban.
“NATO has helped to create the environment for this to happen with our practical and political support. And we have renewed our commitment, including with significant troop increases and financial support,” Stoltenberg said.
He urged the Taliban to respond favorably to this opportunity and participate in an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process. The responsibility to bring an end to a long era of conflict is now in the Taliban’s hands, he said.
A statement issued by NATO after the meeting said: “We believe Pakistan’s role will be important to a peace process, including in encouraging the Taliban to change their calculus. We encourage Pakistan to act on its stated support for a political solution to the Afghan conflict, to close terrorist sanctuaries and to work to prevent terrorist financial flows and cross-border attacks, including by working with its neighbours.”
Friday’s ministerial meeting will be the last in the current NATO headquarters, which has housed the alliance for 50 years. When allied defense ministers gather in June, they will meet in NATO’s new headquarters, which Stoltenberg called “a new home for a modern and forward-looking alliance.”
Martin Banks covered the European Union, NATO and affairs in Belgium for Defense News.