NATO tweaks funding rules, prepares for tense talks as Trump heads to London for summit

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Nov. 28, 2019. NATO leaders, including President Donald Trump, will be meeting outside of London at a time when major alliance powers are at odds over the alliance's priorities.


By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 29, 2019

STUTTGART, Germany — NATO touted increased allied spending and announced a new funding formula that reduces the amount the U.S. pays toward its running costs, days before President Donald Trump was due to arrive in London for a summit to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary.

The moves appear aimed at addressing criticisms from Trump, who frequently complains the U.S. carries an unfair security and financial burden within the alliance.

While gatherings of NATO heads of state have historically been mundane affairs, with leaders signing off on agreements that have been worked out far in advance, this year, there is an air of uncertainty over how events will play out – and Trump’s skeptical views about NATO have added to it.

At NATO’s previous summit in Brussels, Trump caused an uproar when he blasted Germany over its low level of defense spending and threatened that the U.S. would go its own way if allies didn’t pull their weight and contribute more.

While NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg trumpeted the tweak to how NATO funds the running of its headquarters, it is a separate financial bucket from defense spending, the issue that has been the focus of Trump’s gripes.

The U.S. will reduce its contribution to the so-called common fund from 22% to 16% while Germany increases its expenditure, NATO announced. That means the U.S. and Germany will each pay about 16%, with other allies paying the rest.

But cutting the amount the U.S. pays into the common fund is unlikely to distract Trump’s focus on increasing the allies’ defense spending. Nor will it smooth over differences between the allies over several security issues.

Still, Stoltenberg put a positive spin on military investment, noting that European allies and Canada have increased their input by 4.6%, and that the number of allies that spend at least 2% of their country’s economic output on defense will nearly double from five to nine this year.

“Allies are also investing billions more in new capabilities and contributing to NATO deployments around the world,” he said in a statement, days before the summit. “So we are on the right track…”

But Stoltenberg also warned member states not to allow disagreements “to undermine the strength of NATO.” Potential areas of contention include rows with alliance member Turkey, how to deal with long-time foe Russia and a rising China, moribund nuclear weapons treaties, and even the current focus on boosting military spending.

“It is in our security interest to stand together,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

Focusing on NATO members’ military spending is a distraction, French President Emmanuel Macron has said. Larger issues, such a dealing with how to respond to the U.S. decision to pull-out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, the need for more dialogue with Moscow and a strategy that doesn’t define China as an adversary should dominate leaders’ talks, he said.

“So as long as we did not sort out these issues, let us not negotiate about cost-sharing or burden-sharing,” Macron told reporters in Paris Thursday.

Macron’s views on Russia and China appear at odds with official U.S. national security policy, which considers both countries as adversaries and is focused on countering them in an era of “great power competition.”

Trump and Macron are expected to hold bilateral talks on alliance issues Tuesday in London.

"They have different priorities for the alliance," a senior White House official said Friday. "The president wants to make it stronger and the burden sharing more equitable. I think President Macron is still, kind of, working out what he wants."

Comments the French president made in early November – that the alliance was brain dead without U.S. leadership and that European allies can no longer rely on America to defend them – could also lead to tensions at the summit, as could Turkey, which has been building increasingly close ties with Moscow and recently acquired a Russian air defense system.

Turkey is reportedly threatening to block a NATO defense plan for the Baltics and Poland because some member states have refused to support Ankara’s push to call the Kurdish YPG militia a terrorist group and a threat to allies, several media reports have said.

But while there may be range of disagreements within NATO, Stoltenberg said the alliance has a long history of overcoming political disputes, such as the 2003 Iraq War when allies were able to look past differences.

Members continue to unite around the “core task” of collective defense, he said, but added, “Yes, we have some obvious challenges.”

Twitter: @john_vandiver