New US envoy Pompeo takes Trump spending message to NATO

Brussels (AFP) –


President Donald Trump's brand new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will spend his first full day in office Friday hammering home one of his boss's oldest themes -- demanding that NATO allies pay their way.

Within hours of being sworn in, America's new chief diplomat boarded a plane to Brussels for a meeting of some of his new counterparts, the western alliance's foreign ministers.

The message he will carry is a now familiar one: Trump wants NATO member states to increase their military spending and thus reduce the burden placed on the alliance's biggest member.

Some allies, most notably wealthy Germany, are reluctant to meet a commitment made at a NATO summit in Wales in September 2016 to spend two percent of their GDP on their military.

Trump has repeatedly declared this to be tantamount to countries not paying their dues, and US officials said Pompeo would carry this message to Brussels, as his predecessor Rex Tillerson had done.

Earlier this month, welcoming the presidents of the three Baltic republics on NATO's eastern flank with Russia, Trump praised them over the older partner states in western Europe.

"Some of them do not make the same commitment. Hopefully they soon will," he said, setting up a confrontation with Germany and others at the full NATO summit on July 11 and 12.

Friday's talks of the 28 foreign ministers -- along with the next defence ministers' meeting in May -- are designed to prepare the way for this tense encounter.

"The main focus of this ministerial for the United States is increased burden-sharing, strengthening deterrence and defence, and strengthening NATO's role in counterterrorism," a senior US official said.

- Undermine and invade -

To support increased spending, Pompeo will stress the threat posed by Russia, which the official said has "demonstrated its ability to threaten, coerce, undermine, and even invade its neighbors."

"It's a destabilizing factor in Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria," the official said.

"We will underscore how important it is for all allies to take this threat seriously, to honor their commitment from the Wales Summit to spend two percent of GDP and devote 20 percent of defence budgets to major equipment by 2024," he added.

"Six countries in NATO currently do so, nine have submitted credible plans for doing so, and it's time for the other 13 members of the alliance to step up, and especially Germany, NATO's largest and wealthiest European member state."

As the ministers meet in Brussels, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be in Washington for a much-anticipated meeting with Trump, hard on the heels of French President Emmanuel Macron's triumphant three-day state visit.

French and British jets took part in a recent US-led punishment strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical arsenal, but Germany has not joined recent missions and Merkel's meeting will be less warm than Macron's.

The senior US official said Germany spends only 1.24 percent of its GDP on defence and plans only to increase this to 1.25 percent by 2021.

"I think there is an awareness in Germany of the need to do more, and I would expect it to come up in the meetings this week," he said.

Russia will be the first threat on the agenda at Friday's meeting, which will be the first gathering of NATO foreign ministers since the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain and the last before the alliance leaves its Cold War-era headquarters for new premises.

In a press conference ahead of the talks, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg slammed Moscow's "dangerous behaviour", citing the annexation of Crimea, interference in Ukraine, meddling in Western elections, cyber attacks and disinformation.

NATO ministers will look at what more they can do to counter the Russian threat, but Stoltenberg said the alliance remained open to "meaningful dialogue".

- Several hundred troops -

But some NATO members are fearful that Pompeo's reputation for confrontation could upend the alliance's dual-track policy on Russia, which combines military deterrence with diplomacy.

Stoltenberg is expected to say a few words to mark the end of the final meeting of ministers in the historic North Atlantic Council room where Article 5 -- the alliance's mutual self-defence pact -- was invoked for the first and only time, after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Ministers will also debate plans to expand NATO's training mission in Iraq. Details will be confirmed at the summit in July, but Stoltenberg said it would involve several hundred personnel.

And they will discuss Afghanistan, after Stoltenberg said NATO could help ensure security for Afghanistan's upcoming elections.

NATO handed over responsibility for security in Afghanistan to local forces at the end of 2014 but it has a 13,000-strong training and support mission in the country.

After his time in Brussels, Pompeo will head to the Middle East, with stops in Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- countries chosen to reflect their "importance as key allies and partners in the region," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.