BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that alliance members increased defense spending in 2018 for the fourth year in a row, highlighting a slow turnaround amid White House criticism that allies are overly reliant on U.S. military power.
Still, Stoltenberg sought to shine a positive light on 2018’s results, highlighting the spending increases. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland all joined Trump’s gold-star spending club by meeting NATO targets. Romania is expected to do so this year.
“At a time when some are questioning the strength of the transatlantic bond, we are actually doing more together in more ways and in more places than ever before,” Stoltenberg said.
Trump has hammered NATO allies for their lagging spending, recently raising in private conversations about an idea to charge countries for the cost of U.S. troop deployment on their soil, plus 50 percent. His “cost plus 50” plan — which acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan ruled out Thursday in a Senate hearing — could have been explosive if formally proposed.
Stoltenberg, who is eager to avoid direct confrontation with Trump, said there had been no such discussion in NATO. But he noted that U.S. troops were stationed in Europe not only to defend Europeans but also to help project U.S. military power onto Africa and the Middle East.
“The U.S. presence in Europe is important for NATO, but it is also important for the United States,” he said. “It is part of our shared security, of our collective defense.”
Even if the U.S. president appears to harbor deep doubts about the value of the alliance, his own Cabinet officials and U.S. lawmakers have tried to reassure allies that NATO retains bipartisan support in Washington. Earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a rare invitation to Stoltenberg to address a joint session of Congress when he is Washington next month to celebrate NATO’s 70th anniversary. Stoltenberg has accepted the invitation — and now has to figure out what to say so that he angers neither Trump nor Trump’s opponents.
The birthday party will be attended by foreign ministers, not leaders — a choice that officials on both sides opted for to avoid giving Trump new opportunities to throw grenades. NATO leaders will meet instead in London in December.
Spending by non-U.S. NATO members started to rise in 2014, before Trump’s denunciations of the alliance sent European officials grabbing for their blood pressure pills. Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 shook many European nations out of years of post-Cold War complacency. President Barack Obama also criticized allies for low defense spending, although not with the same edge as his successor.
But for all the focus on the bottom line, the overall non-U.S. defense spending among NATO allies has increased since 2014 only by $14.6 billion a year, or about 5 percent. Setting aside the United States, NATO members spent about 1.48 percent of their annual economic output on defense in 2018, far short of the 2 percent target they said in 2014 they would try to meet within a decade. Only 16 countries have come up with plans to get there in time. Overall, spending levels rose only modestly in 2018.
And Germany — Europe’s richest country — did little to tamp down Trump’s criticisms. Although it increased its defense spending by 3.6 percent in 2018 compared with the previous year, its economy grew at the same time, so its overall spending remained stuck at 1.23 percent of annual economic output.
Stoltenberg has forged a friendly relationship with Trump despite the turbulent conditions, carefully framing the numbers to massage Oval Office egos. The NATO secretary general now touts the extra money spent in the past two years, ignoring the increases before Trump, a shift that his advisers say is all about making the U.S. president happy.
When the two leaders met at a NATO summit in July, Stoltenberg boasted about the recent increases.
“Why was that last year?” Trump asked.
“Because of your leadership, because of your carried message,” Stoltenberg replied.
Trump joked that reporters “won’t write that, but that’s okay.”