BRUSSELS (AP) – US Defense Secretary Mark Esper attempted on Friday to reassure NATO allies that Washington will consult them on future troop movements after President Donald Trump surprised the partners in the military alliance with the withdrawal of thousands announce employees from Germany.
At a time when video conferencing has become the norm because of the coronavirus, Esper paid a brief personal visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels a week after several Allied defense ministers expressed concerns about the unpredictability of U.S. troop plans in Europe and amidst of a draw in Afghanistan.
“I am pleased that the US is consulting with allies, while making it clear that US commitment to European security remains strong,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a joint video statement before talking to Esper. feed. Both men arrived at their lectern with face masks.
Media generally cannot access NATO headquarters due to virus-related restrictions.
Last week, Trump said he is ordering a major drop in troop strength in Germany, from about 34,500 to 25,000. Members of his own party have criticized the move as a gift to Russia and a threat to U.S. national security. Germany is a hub for US operations in the Middle East and Africa.
Trump said this week that the troops could be moved to Poland.
Germany was not notified of the move, which came after Trump labeled his NATO ally “delinquent” for not paying enough for his own defense, by failing to meet a goal set in 2014 for members to stop austerity and move towards spending 2% of gross national product against defense by 2024.
Esper reaffirmed that message, saying, “I continue to urge all our allies to meet their 2% of GDP target. We have come a long way from this in recent years, but there is much more we need to do to ensure our collective safety. ”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refocused on Germany on Thursday.
“We consider Russia a serious threat. Spending 1% of your GDP on defense, such as Germany, recognizes that they may not consider it as serious a threat as the United States of America. They have to, “said Pompeo.
“That does not demonstrate the determination (Russian President) Vladimir Putin should see from Germany,” he added.
According to NATO figures, Germany spends about 1.38% of GDP on its defense budget. Berlin aims to reach 1.5% by 2024 and insists that with this spending level it can achieve NATO’s defense planning goals. The US – at about 3.4% of GDP – spends more on defense than all 29 other allies combined.
In an interview on Friday with six European newspapers, Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that Germany should boost military spending, but she also emphasized that the presence of US forces is not only benefiting her country.
“We in Germany know we need to spend more on defense; we have seen significant increases in recent years, and we will continue along that path to improve our military capabilities, “Merkel said, adding that” US troops in Germany help protect not only Germany and the European part of NATO, but also the interests of the United States of America. “
She also said that Europe should take responsibility for more of its security needs in her interview with Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Britain’s Guardian, Le Monde in France, Italy’s La Stampa, Spain’s La Vanguardia and Poland’s Polityka newspaper.
“We grew up knowing that the United States wanted to be a world power. Should the US now withdraw from that role of its own free will, we should think very deeply about it, ”Merkel said.
In a statement after his talks with Esper, Stoltenberg also underlined that “the US military presence in Europe is important to Europe and also to North America. Because only by working together can we address the major challenges we face.”
Speaking of Afghanistan, where NATO has led security efforts since 2003 and recently started withdrawing troops in accordance with a US peace deal with the Taliban, the statement said the alliance will “continue to adjust its presence” and “will be” done in close collaboration with allies and partners. ”
Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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