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Tillerson tells NATO allies to pay more, do more to fight terrorism

 (Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday promised NATO allies that the United States will stand by their side but also expected them to spend more on defense and do more to fight terrorism.

Tillerson participated in a day of discussions with foreign ministers from the 27 other NATO member nations, his first with the full roster of allies, who were sent scrambling last week to accommodate the top U.S. diplomat after he said he could not attend the meeting originally planned for early April.

"The United States is committed to ensuring NATO has the capabilities to support our collective defense. We understand that a threat against one of us is a threat against all of us," Tillerson said.

But, he added, "as President Trump has made clear, it is no longer sustainable for the U.S. to maintain a disproportionate share of NATO’s defense expenditures."

The United States is amping up pressure on NATO members to increase their defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product, in line with a 2014 agreement among the alliance's 28 member countries to meet the target by 2024.

Only five NATO countries meet the 2% threshold. The U.S. spends 3.61% of its GDP on defense, more than any other member of the alliance.

Tillerson said that if countries have not met the 2% spending goal by the end of the year, they should at least have a concrete plan "that clearly articulates how, with annual milestone progress commitments, the pledge will be fulfilled.”

Pressure to meet that strict deadline is likely to upset some allies.

German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told reporters before Friday's meeting that he thinks it would be “completely unrealistic” for Germany to bring its military defense spending up to 2% of GDP.

“I don't know any politician in Germany who thinks that this would be reachable or desirable,” Gabriel said.

Germany is increasing its military spending this year to $39 billion, or 1.2% of its GDP. Gabriel rejected the Trump administration's focus on military expenditures, arguing that humanitarian aid and Germany's spending to take in refugees should be considered part of the defense budget.

Tillerson also called on allies to take a greater role in the fight against terrorism.

"NATO can and should do more," he said. "Fighting terrorism is the top national security priority for the United States, as it should be for all of us."

Tillerson's earlier announcement that he would skip the meeting struck a nerve among the alliance members, coming at a sensitive time when tensions between the Trump administration and NATO allies have soared.

The schedule change caused an awkward protocol shuffle, with a handful of foreign ministers unable to make it to Brussels. What was supposed to be a two-day meeting was compressed into half of a day.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tried to cast optimism on the last-minute schedule change, calling it “a sign of the strong transatlantic unity and flexibility of our alliance that we were able to find a date.”

The foreign ministers' meeting is crucial because it lays the groundwork for a NATO summit with heads of state in May, which will be President Trump's first overseas trip since taking office.

Tillerson's day of talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels follows visits from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, who attempted to dispel fears that the Trump administration will seek to loosen ties with the alliance.

Trump called NATO “obsolete” in an interview published days before his inauguration. He later insisted, during German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to the White House earlier this month, that the U.S. will maintain its “strong commitment” to the alliance.

Tillerson arrived in Brussels on Friday morning after meeting Thursday in Ankara, Turkey, with that country's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to discuss terrorism and Syria, though the leaders failed to reach an agreement on how to combat Islamic State.

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