NATO allies defend military spending amid Trump criticism

NATO's European allies are pushing back against U.S. criticism that they are not spending enough on defense, as President Donald Trump ratchets up pressure ahead of a summit next week.

Ahead of the July 11-12 summit in Brussels, Trump sent a letter to Norway and other allies demanding that they boost spending. After Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, NATO allies agreed in 2014 to end defense budget cuts, to begin spending more as their economies grew and to move toward a goal of 2 percent of GDP within a decade.

In an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday, Norwegian Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said that "Norway stands by its decision of the NATO Summit in 2014 and is following up on this."

Norway has spent "far beyond" NATO's target for spending on new military equipment, he added.

The upcoming meeting is the first major summit since the fractious Group of Seven meeting in Canada last month, and NATO officials are concerned that trans-Atlantic divisions over trade tariffs and the U.S. pullout from the global climate agreement and Iran nuclear deal could undermine alliance unity.

In the letter to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, dated June 19 and seen by the AP, Trump wrote that despite her country's important role in the alliance Norway "remains the only NATO ally sharing a border with Russia that lacks a credible plan to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense."

In a line repeated in a similar letter to Belgium, Trump said that it will "become increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries continue to fail to meet our shared collective security commitments."

Trump dressed down his NATO counterparts last year, publicly berating them for not spending enough and claiming they owe the U.S. money. When he first came to office he even suggested that the U.S. — by far NATO's most powerful ally — might not protect countries that don't pull their weight.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel played down the importance of the letter he received, saying that it was "typical" of the kinds of things that are sent ahead of meetings like the NATO summit.

"I am not too intimidated by this type of mail," he said in the margins of a European Union summit last Friday.

Michel said that Belgium is doing its part in the defense of the alliance.

"We participate in many military operations with our NATO allies and it is this government that decided to end the systematic reduction of defense spending," he said.

Despite the political rhetoric, the 2 percent figure does not concern spending on NATO and no one owes the alliance or any ally money. It is about the size of national defense budgets only. Other factors that nations take into consideration when looking at burden-sharing are the amount of money spent on new military equipment and contributions to NATO operations.

But the U.S. spends more on defense than all the others combined — 3.61 percent of GDP in 2016, or around $664 billion. That's roughly two thirds of total spending on national budgets, according to NATO estimates.

Trump argues that a pledge was made and must be kept. Other nations argue that the 2 percent pledge is a guideline only.

"You can ask 10 lawyers to provide a legal interpretation of that document and then you will have, I guess, 10 different interpretations. And then you can pay 10 more lawyers even more to provide you with a new interpretation," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last month. "This document is not a legal document. It is a political document with a political commitment."

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Olsen reported from Copenhagen, Denmark. Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.