Tillerson gets second chance to make impression on Group of 7

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson salutes members of The Supreme Court as he arrives to listen to U.S. President Donald J. Trump address a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on February 28, 2017 in Washington, DC.



BRUSSELS (Tribune News Service) –– As tensions with Russia and North Korea escalate, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is getting a chance to ease strains with his allies.

Ten days after Tillerson endured an acrimonious gathering of NATO’s top diplomats in Brussels, he meets Monday with his counterparts from the Group of Seven nations in the Italian city of Lucca.

While U.S. allies praised the Trump administration’s missile strikes against Syria last week, there’s a trans-Atlantic fissure looming over the new president’s demands that NATO members spend more on defense. The 28-nation alliance has emerged as a point of tension as concerns grow over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic aims and the fallout from the war in Syria.

“A big part of our spending today regarding the refugee crisis is related to the consequences of failed military interventions in the past,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told Tillerson at the March 31 NATO meeting in a jibe at the U.S. Middle East policies, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Patience was already strained heading into the meeting because Tillerson asked the NATO ministers to rearrange their schedules to accommodate him. The session itself was curtailed to five hours at Tillerson’s request, to the further annoyance of those present.

What ensued was a rancorous gathering at which the Germans and Italians rejected President Donald Trump’s demands for concrete plans to increase defense spending to 2 percent of economic output, according to a description by three officials with knowledge of the private meeting.

Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said his government faced domestic political problems. The anti-establishment Five Star movement, which leads in public-opinion polling, opposes higher defense spending.

The political environment is hardly better in Germany, though Gabriel added another point: If Germany were to spend $74 billion a year on defense, it would create the largest military in Europe –– hardly viable scenario in a region already worried about Berlin’s influence on economic matters.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande praised Trump’s missile strikes against Syria, Europe’s position is that there is no military solution to the war there, according to a statement by EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini. Islamic State and the situation in Syria top the agenda in Lucca.

Of NATO’s European members, only four spend 2 percent or more of their gross domestic product on defense –– Britain, Greece, Estonia and Poland. The rest committed at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014 to move toward the 2 percent threshold “within a decade.”

The arguments have made no progress in Washington, which has diverted an aircraft carrier toward the Korean peninsula over concerns about North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.

Donahue reported from Berlin. Migliaccio reported from Rome. Nick Wadhams contributed to this report.

©2017 Bloomberg News
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