Sat, 15 Aug 2020

Leaders of NATO members began arriving at a luxury hotel and golf resort outside London looking for common ground amid infighting over the role and future of the Western military alliance as it marks its 70th anniversary.

After meeting for three hours at the 18th century mansion-turned hotel near Watford, the 29 leaders are expected to publish a joint declaration underlining their commitment to NATO and to show that the alliance is adapting to new threats and challenges.

The host of the summit, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is expected to make an appeal for unity and remind leaders that their commitment to defend one another is at the heart of the transatlantic alliance, which was set up by the United States, Canada, and 10 European countries in 1949 on the principle of collective defense, amid concerns over Soviet expansion.

'Seventy years on, we are rock solid in our commitment to NATO and to the giant shield of solidarity that now protects 29 countries and nearly a billion people,' Johnson is to say, according to his office.

'If NATO has a motto, it is: 'One for all, and all for one.''

Before chairing the meeting, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described NATO as 'the most successful alliance in history because we have been able to change again and again when the world is changing.'

"NATO is agile, NATO is active, NATO is adapting," he added.

The first day of the two-day gathering included a reception with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, a visit to 10 Downing Street, the British prime minister's official residence, and separate meetings between NATO leaders.

The day was overshadowed by disagreements between allies over issues including Turkey's military operation in Syria as well as last month's comments by French President Emmanuel Macron that NATO is 'brain dead' and that the U.S. commitment to the bloc is fading.

Hours after landing in London, Trump hit back at Macron, saying he had been 'very disrespectful' in what he said were 'nasty' comments.

However, the U.S. president was more conciliatory toward the French leader at their joint press encounter later in the day, saying Washington and Paris shared 'many good ventures,' while playing down what he called a 'minor dispute' on trade.

Two key issues have loomed over preparations for the summit: defense spending and relations between Turkey and other member states such as France.

Before departing for the British capital, Turkish President Erdogan said he would oppose NATO's plan for the defense of Baltic countries if the alliance did not support Turkey over its fight against Kurdish groups in Syria it considers terrorists.

Other leaders have opposed such a move, not least because Kurdish-led forces drove fighters of the Islamic State extremist group out of eastern Syria with the help of a multinational coalition led by the United States.

'I am confident that we will be able to also find a solution to the issue related to updating the revised defense plans,' Stoltenberg told journalists on December 4, adding that he discussed the issue with Erdogan the previous night.

'We are working on the issue as we speak,' he added.

Macron also called for comprehensive talks with Russia, amid persistent tensions between Moscow and the West.

'It's important to have a strategic dialogue with Russia,' Macron said, adding that the alliance should do so 'with its eyes wide open.'

President Vladimir Putin had earlier hinted that Russia was open to cooperation with NATO on common threats, including international terrorism, but complained that its attempts to forge closer links had 'practically been curtailed.'

Trump, who has pressed hard for other NATO member states to meet the alliance's spending rules, discussed the matter with Stoltenberg in London.

To back up his words, Trump is expected to have lunch only with officials from those countries that have met the 2 percent of economic output spending target for members.

'We are making real progress, most importantly on the burden sharing. And your leadership on defense spending is having a real impact,' Stoltenberg said at the meeting.

He said European allies and Canada had added $130 billion to defense budgets since 2016 and that this number would increase to $400 billion by 2024.

"This is unprecedented, this is making NATO stronger and it shows that this alliance is adapting, responding when the world is changing,' Stoltenberg said.

NATO estimates show there are now a total of nine countries meeting the target agreed by members to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.

"You could make the case that they've been delinquent for 25-30 years," Trump said, adding that the figure of 2 percent "is a very low number."

With reporting by AFP, the BBC, and AP

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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