Tillerson Gets Second Chance to Make First Impression With G-7

  • Germany, Italy said to have resisted Tillerson’s spending call
  • Alliance ministers offended by abrupt change in meeting date

As tensions with Russia and North Korea escalate, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is getting a chance to ease strains with his allies.

Ten days after Tillerson endured an acrimonious gathering of NATO’s top diplomats in Brussels, the former chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp. on Monday meets his counterparts from the Group of Seven nations in the Italian city of Lucca.

Rex Tillerson

Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

While U.S. allies praised the Trump administration’s missile strikes against Syria last week, there’s a trans-Atlantic fissure looming over the new president’s demands that NATO members spend more on defense. The 28-nation alliance has emerged as a point of tension amid growing concerns over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic aims and the fallout from the war in Syria.

“A big part of our spending today regarding the refugee crisis is related to the consequences of failed military interventions in the past,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told Tillerson at the March 31 NATO meeting in a pointed jibe at the U.S. Middle East policies, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Patience was already strained heading into the meeting because Tillerson asked the NATO ministers to rearrange their schedules to accommodate him. The session itself was curtailed to five hours at Tillerson’s request, to the further annoyance of those present.

Trump Rebuffed

What ensued was a rancorous gathering at which the Germans and Italians rejected President Donald Trump’s demands for concrete plans to ratchet up defense spending to 2 percent of economic output, according to a description by three officials with knowledge of the closed-door meeting.

Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano added that his government faced domestic political hurdles. The anti-establishment Five Star movement, which leads in public-opinion polling, opposes higher defense spending.

The political environment is hardly better in Germany, though Gabriel added another point: If Germany were to spend some 70 billion euros ($74 billion) a year on defense, it would create the largest military in Europe -- hardly a viable scenario in a region already fretting about Berlin’s heavy footprint on economic matters.

“I don’t know where we would put all the aircraft carriers we’d have to buy in order to invest 70 billion euros a year into the German armed forces,” Gabriel quipped to reporters after the meeting.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande praised Trump’s missile strikes against Syria, Europe’s position is that there is no military solution to the war there, according to a statement by EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini. Islamic State and the situation in Syria top the agenda in Lucca.

NATO Spending

Of NATO’s European members, only four spend 2 percent or more of their gross domestic product on defense -- the U.K., Greece, Estonia and Poland. The rest committed at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014 to “move towards” the 2 percent threshold “within a decade.”

Gabriel has been vocal in calling the spending target unrealistic for Germany. He’s also cited Germany’s spending on development aid -- 0.7 percent of GDP -- as a component of security expenditures.

The arguments have made no progress in Washington, which has diverted an aircraft carrier toward the Korean peninsula amid tensions over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. Merkel’s first visit with Trump at the White House last month was followed by a presidential tweet saying Germany owes “vast sums of money to NATO.”

“The United States must be paid more for the powerful and very expensive defense it provides Germany!” Trump exclaimed on March 18. As Trump prepares to meet NATO leaders in Brussels on May 25, there’s little sign the division over spending will ease.

“Members’ financial commitments to the alliance ensure our ability to execute on our mission,” State Department spokesman R.C. Hammond said in response to a query over spending. “If we’re not putting the money behind our effort, any strategy we have will be that much weaker.”

— With assistance by Nick Wadhams

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