U.S. Defense Chief Reassures Allies and Seeks More Spending in NATO Debut

U.S. Defense Chief Reassures Allies and Seeks More Spending in NATO Debut

16:02 - Austin aims to soothe allies after tensions with Trump administration, but maintain pressure on spending

The Biden administration kicked off a round of high-level diplomacy with its European allies at a NATO meeting where it sought to soothe allies bruised by former President Donald Trump’s criticism and snap decision-making.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his first meetings with counterparts at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Wednesday and Thursday, reaffirmed President Biden’s aim to revitalize ties and commitment to its mutual-defense pact, while urging allies to meet defense-spending targets, U.S. officials said.

Mr. Biden will on Friday speak via video link at the Munich Security Conference alongside European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He will also meet virtually with leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, the global economy and dealing with China.

“We have a unique opportunity to open a new chapter in relations between Europe and North America,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday.

Mr. Biden took office last month saying he wants to rebuild U.S. alliances, starting with NATO. Mr. Trump launched frequent broadsides against other members, particularly Germany, for not meeting the alliance’s target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense.

European leaders and diplomats complained they often found out via Twitter about policy decisions, including the redeployment of U.S. troops from areas where their own forces were operating. Mr. Trump questioned the value of NATO, and Mr. Macron concluded it was facing “brain death.”

Mr. Biden has pursued a gentler approach to reassure allies, although he also wants European countries to increase defense spending. The White House last month took the unusual step of releasing a video of a phone call between the U.S. president and Mr. Stoltenberg, where Mr. Biden declared the U.S.’s sacred commitment to the alliance’s mutual-defense agreement.

At a NATO meeting earlier this month, senior U.S. officials asked allies for their views on Afghanistan, where the Pentagon is reviewing policy ahead of a May 1 deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops set out in a peace agreement. Diplomats at NATO say it marked a change from consultations under the Trump administration, which often involved U.S. officials briefing on decisions that had already been taken. Mr. Biden has also frozen the redeployment of thousands of U.S. troops from Germany—ordered by Mr. Trump—pending a Pentagon review of U.S. global military posture.

European allies, which have more service members in Afghanistan than the U.S. does, have said they would base their future force presence on U.S. plans, as they depend on U.S. forces for things like logistics. At the second day of meetings among alliance defense ministers Thursday, held via video link because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Austin stressed that the U.S. had not yet taken a decision, U.S. officials said. He reassured allies that the U.S. wouldn’t undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pentagon said.

Ministers agreed to increase the alliance’s training mission to Iraq to around 4,000 service members, Mr. Stoltenberg said. They also discussed proposals by the secretary-general on how to counter new threats, such as the rise of China.

“Europe believes that unilateral decision-making belongs in the past, and we can clearly see it already,” said a senior European diplomat at NATO. “By changing the tone and the way you consult, you create a new environment. But on the substance of burden sharing I have a feeling the U.S. is as tough as they were.”

There are sticking points in relations, not least the need to rebuild trust, European officials say.

“The level of anxiety is still high after four years of trauma,” said a senior European diplomat at NATO.

European leaders such as Ms. Merkel say they don’t want to be forced to take sides in a confrontation between the U.S. and China. The Biden administration is reviewing U.S. policy toward a pipeline designed to carry Russian natural gas to Germany that was opposed by Mr. Trump.

The Pentagon has also indicated it will keep the squeeze on allies to increase military spending. Weak European spending on defense has been a sore point for U.S. administrations for years, including under former President Barack Obama, when Mr. Biden served as vice president. Mr. Stoltenberg said that Canada and European allies had added an extra $190 billion in defense spending since 2014, but that only nine of the alliance’s 30 members would meet the 2% goal this year. All have pledged to meet it by 2024.

Some officials worry that the lessening of pressure from Mr. Trump could lead to some allies slipping back on their commitments. Others say Europeans recognize that they need to increase military spending for their own benefit.

“It’s not a new issue and allies know it’s not a partisan issue,” said a senior U.S. official. “It comes as no surprise that this issue isn’t going away. It will have a different tone to it.”

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