World First Look

Does Germany owe 'vast sums' to US for NATO defense? Germany says no.

On Sunday, Germany's defense minister rejected US President Trump's claim that her country owes NATO and the United States 'vast sums' of money for having underspent on defense.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg delivers his speech during the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany last month.
Michaela Rehle/Reuters
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Germany has flatly rejected a claim President Trump tweeted on Saturday morning, when he wrote that Germany owes “vast sums” of money to NATO and the United States for underspending.

“There is no debt account at NATO,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement on Sunday, adding that it was wrong to link the alliance’s target for members to spend 2 percent of their economic output on defense by 2024 solely to NATO.

"Defense spending also goes into UN peacekeeping missions, into our European missions and into our contribution to the fight against IS terrorism," Ms. von der Leyen said.

Germany’s rejection of Trump’s accusation follows the latest in a series of critical statements from the White House against NATO allies. Even before Mr. Trump took office, Europe’s low expenditure was a sore point for the United States, which puts up 70 percent of the alliance's funds. But Trump and members of his cabinet have been unusually critical of the alliance and how it is funded.

In 2016, Germany’s defense spending ratio stood at 1.18 percent. It is set to rise by 1.4 billion euros to 38.5 billion euros in 2019, bringing it to 1.26 percent of the country’s economic output, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said. In 2024, that figure is expected to reach 2 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product, coming in line with NATO’s target.

But Trump insinuated on Saturday that Germany has short-changed the alliance.

The tweet came a day after Trump’s first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a visit he described in another Saturday tweet as “great.”

In addition to criticizing Trump’s claim, von der Leyen, the defense minister, acknowledged all allies want the NATO burden to be shared fairly. But for that to happen, she added, it was necessary to have a “modern security concept” that included a modern NATO but also a European defense union and investment in the United Nations.

Trump has not been the only American official to be critical of Germany and other European allies. In February, Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, warned NATO allies in his first visit to Brussels that they must honor military spending pledges.

"America cannot care more for your children's future security than you do," Mr. Mattis said in a closed-door session with NATO defense ministers, according to prepared remarks provided to reporters.

Mattis’s words marked some of the strongest criticism in recent memory of NATO allies who have failed to reach defense spending goals, adding to Trump’s campaign criticism that NATO allies have “been very unfair to us” for not spending more.

Italy and Spain, two of Europe’s larger economies, spend barely 1 percent a year on defense, as they try to control their budget deficits in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark are three other small spenders on defense. But the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, fearful of the threat of Russia from the east, are on course to meet the 2 percent goal, as is Romania.

During his trip to Brussels, Mattis did reassure those concerned over the United States’ commitment to NATO, but said that the US wants more equal spending partners.

"America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense," he said last month.

At the time, von der Leyen said "the United States is right" on defense spending. But she was also critical of Trump’s victory immediately after the November election, calling the win a big shock, and nudging the then-president-elect to drop the isolationism he has preached and to clarify his stances on NATO and Russia.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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