NATO: Only 7 members are meeting defense spending targets

Despite many European countries boosting their defense budgets, only seven of the 29 NATO allies are currently reaching the recommended spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product, according to NATO’s annual report, which was published Thursday.

President Donald Trump has long criticized NATO countries over their failure to meet the 2% target and the new data came as US and NATO officials sought to downplay reports that the Trump administration is seeking to ask allies to pay dramatically more for hosting US troops.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sought to highlight the spending increases while acknowledging more work needs to be done.

“Last year, European Allies and Canada increased their defense spending by almost 4% in real terms. Since 2016, they have actually spent an extra $41 billion on defense, and we expect that figure to rise to $100 billion by the end of next year,” Stoltenberg said Thursday.

“We have seen significant increase, but I call for and I expect more, because that is what all Allies have agreed, and it’s in the security interests of all Allies to do so,” he added.

While previous US presidents had made similar critiques of NATO members’ defense spending, Trump has made it a central theme of his administration’s foreign policy, repeatedly slamming allies over the issue.

In 2014, following Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, all NATO members pledged to meet the 2% target by 2024. At that time only three countries — the US, Greece and the UK — met the requirement.

Those nations are now joined by Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania — with the latter three hitting the target this year. All these countries are seen as particularly concerned about Russian military aggression.

Romania is close behind at 1.92% of GDP and according to NATO the country has legal and political measures in place to ensure that it will hit the 2% target soon.

“They actually had a budget allocating 2% of GDP for defense but then GDP growth was stronger than expected, so they, they just slipped below the 2% target,” Stoltenberg said.

France, which participates in multiple military operations in Africa and the Middle East, spent 1.82% of its GDP, according to the report

Germany, a frequent target of Trump’s criticism, is at 1.23%, a figure largely unchanged since 2014, when all allies pledged to boost their defense spending.

The report comes as US and NATO officials denied reports that the Trump administration was attempting to get allies to cover the full cost of the US military presence in their countries, then also pay an additional 50% of that cost, a formula being referred to as “cost plus 50.”

Asked about the notion on Thursday, acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the reports were “erroneous.”

“They are erroneous. We are not going to run a business; we are not going to run a charity. The important part is people pay their fair share, and payment comes in lots of different forms — it could be contributions, like in Afghanistan — but at the end of the day people need to carry their fair share, and not everyone can contribute, but it is not about cost plus 50%,” Shanahan said.

Stoltenberg also sought to downplay the reports.

“There’s been no such proposals discussed in NATO, so this is only reports in the media,” Stoltenberg said Thursday.

CNN previously reported that the National Security Council had asked the Pentagon for some cost estimates of the US troop and military equipment presence in these countries, according to a US official familiar with the matter, but the official said the exact term “cost plus 50” had not been used in negotiations with allies, explaining that the administration saw it as more of an internal marker or motivator.

Stoltenberg announced Thursday that he had accepted an invitation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to address a joint session of Congress next month, the day before the 70th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

“It is a great honor to be invited to speak at a joint meeting of the US Congress, I am grateful for the bipartisan invitation to do so and I will of course accept the invitation. I am actually very much looking forward to speak to the Congress. That is a great opportunity for the whole of NATO,” he said.

He called the invitation “a great recognition to all 29 Allies, and what we do together, and it shows that NATO is delivering and that we are doing more together –North America and Europe — than we have done for many years.”

While Trump has criticized NATO on several occasions, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have repeatedly voiced support for the alliance.