US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NATO that the Washington will remain committed to previous agreements and ensure that the alliance has the capability to defend itself, including from Russian aggression.
He warned, in his first NATO meeting in Brussels, allies to boost defense spending or come up with plans to reach the alliance’s budget guidelines by a May summit of NATO leaders.
Tillerson said that the US is spending a “disproportionate share” on defense compared with its 27 partners, and that he expects action by the time President Donald Trump meets with other alliance leaders on May 25.
NATO leaders pledged in 2014 to halt defense spending cuts and move toward a guideline target of 2 percent of gross domestic product within a decade. Only four other nations currently meet the target: Britain, Estonia, Greece and Poland.
Tillerson did not say what would happen if European allies and Canada fail to respect their pledges. During election campaigning, Trump suggested that he might not come to the defense of those allies who do not do their fair share, rocking allies with borders near an increasingly aggressive Russia, like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
However, Tillerson sought to calm any fears, saying Friday that “we understand that a threat against one of us is a threat against all of us, and we will respond accordingly. We will uphold the agreements we have made to defend our allies.
US allies also want to hear exactly what more Washington expects NATO to do against the ISIS extremist group.
NATO has fought insurgents in Afghanistan, and is training Iraqi officers so that local forces can make a strong stand against extremists. There is no appetite to deploy troops in counter-terrorism operations. Allies believe that the international coalition against ISIS should be leading combat operations, not NATO.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the lesson learned from operations in Afghanistan, but also in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, is that “in the long run it is much better to fight terrorism and project stability by training local forces, building local security institutions, instead of NATO deploying a large number of combat troops.”
France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, insisted that only a political solution can bring peace to Syria and cut extremism off at its roots.
On the subject of Russia, Tillerson said he would hold talks with NATO allies about “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine”, signaling a tougher stance toward Moscow from the Trump administration.
State Department officials said Tillerson would work with NATO allies to press Russia to fulfil its obligations under the Minsk agreements to end the war in eastern Ukraine.
Tillerson’s remarks appeared likely to ease concerns that Trump is more interested in cultivating ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin than in shoring up the 28-nation alliance against a more assertive Moscow.
Allies have been alarmed at the prospect of Trump seeking to improve relations with the Kremlin at the expense of support for the pro-Western government in Ukraine and NATO allies in former Soviet parts of eastern Europe.
Russia in 2014 annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
A senior NATO official told reporters on condition of anonymity that the Trump administration was now taking a more “mainstream” approach to the alliance and anxiety among allies had eased.