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Trump's Tough Talk On German Defense Spending Is Straining A Decades-Long Friendship


The secretary general of NATO is in Washington to mark the organization's 70th anniversary. President Trump met with him today, and then the president told reporters something that he has said a lot. He criticized Germany, a NATO ally, for spending what he says is too little on defense. As NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from Berlin, that tough talk is straining a decades-long friendship.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Every summer, the American military invites Germans to dance and eat at a friendship festival in the city of Wiesbaden.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is Texas-style barbecue.

KAKISSIS: Germany hosts more than 30,000 American troops and the largest American military hospital outside the U.S.

CLAUDIA MAJOR: So Germany's actually a very important logistical hub for the U.S. armed forces.

KAKISSIS: Claudia Major is a senior defense analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

MAJOR: It's a safe, secure space from which you can go very easily to all the trouble regions in the world where the U.S. is committed. It's not only because it wants to help the poor little Europeans.

KAKISSIS: But President Trump has repeatedly said he's sick of the U.S. subsidizing European defense. After a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last month, he insisted that Germany had to spend more.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to have a reciprocal relationship, and it's going to be something that benefits all of us, OK?

KAKISSIS: Germany spends about 1.3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, half of the U.S. percentage and less than the NATO recommendation of 2 percent. Major says history is one reason.

MAJOR: I mean, there's obviously World War II.

KAKISSIS: After Germany was rebuilt in the 1950s, its military guarded NATO territory from the Soviet Union, but did little beyond that.

MAJOR: There's also a strong conviction in Germany that you don't solve problems with military tools.

KAKISSIS: The U.S. has complained about Germany's low defense spending for decades. As a former Obama administration security adviser, Julianne Smith remembers the topic coming up all the time.

JULIANNE SMITH: But we didn't necessarily make that a key feature of our relationship. We also understood what Germany was doing in other ways to contribute to our common security.

KAKISSIS: Like spending billions of dollars and losing nearly 60 troops to support the NATO operation in Afghanistan. After Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Germany did pledge to move toward spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense by 2024. But late last month, the German government announced that it would likely fall significantly short of that goal. Major, the defense analyst, says Germany will lose credibility if it does not step up.

MAJOR: Germany is one of the biggest countries. It's a strong economy in the middle of Europe, strong political voice. So hiding away and pretending that you don't play a role doesn't work.

KAKISSIS: Merkel's government is also facing an internal challenge on the defense issue from progressives in her coalition government who want to shun military spending in favor of education, health and infrastructure. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.