LONDON — With a very public spat taking place between NATO members France and Turkey just ahead of the latest meeting of the military alliance in London, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNBC that it's normal for allies to disagree.
"Sometimes NATO allies don't agree on all issues," he said, speaking to CNBC's Hadley Gamble the day before the NATO summit begins at a location just outside London.
"At the same time the strength of NATO is that despite the differences we have seen throughout our history, we've always been able to agree around our core task to protect and defend each other."
French President Emmanuel Macron drew a sharp rebuke from NATO-ally Turkey after he said three weeks ago that the 70-year old military alliance of 29 countries was experiencing "brain death."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by saying Macron should check whether he himself was "brain dead."
"I'm addressing Mr Macron from Turkey and I will say it at NATO: You should check whether you are brain dead first," Erdogan said on Friday, Reuters reported.
Stoltenberg said the different perspectives on NATO's existence "reflect the fact that we are 29 allies with different political leaders from both sides of the Atlantic with different history and geography."
"The reality is that we do more together now than we've done in many years," he added.
The "Leaders Meeting" in the U.K. comes on the the 70th anniversary of the military alliance, a 29-member group that was initially set up in 1949 as a defense against the perceived post-war threat from the Soviet Union.
Seventy years on, and NATO appears to be facing something of an existential crisis with Macron the latest leader that has dared to question the alliance's validity and purpose. His comments come after U.S. President Donald Trump has also lambasted the organization, calling into question the U.S.' commitment to the group.
While discussions between heads of state and government this week are likely to focus on shifting geopolitical relations and military threats from outside the organization, the spotlight is also likely to rest on tensions within the alliance, namely over the issue of defense spending and the group's unity, future and purpose.
Stoltenberg told CNBC that NATO members were making strides to increase their defense spending, though most are still not hitting a previously-agreed target to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense.
NATO defense spending estimates for 2019 (released in June) show that only the U.S., U.K., Greece, Estonia, Romania, Poland and Latvia have met or surpassed that 2% target. The highest defense spend was made by the U.S., at 3.4% of its GDP, while the lowest spend was by Luxembourg which has only spent an estimated 0.55%.
"NATO allies are now really stepping up and delivering more than they have done for many years. After years of cutting defense budgets, all allies have started to invest more and by the end of 2024 non-U.S. allies, i.e. Europe and Canada, will have added $400 billion extra to their defense budgets," he said.
"That's unprecedented and that's making NATO stronger and it shows that European allies and Canada are really starting to deliver."
Investment is a thorny subject for NATO. Last year, Trump chided the alliance for not contributing enough to defense spending and for overly relying on the U.S.
The president caused a furor last year when he unleashed a barrage of criticism, calling many NATO members, including Germany, "delinquents" for not raising their defense spending to the agreed level.
Germany has been singled out for especially harsh treatment because of its budget surplus. The European nation only spent an estimated 1.36% of its GDP on defense spending in 2019, albeit up from 1.23% in 2018, setting up another potential clash with the U.S.
But Stoltenberg defended Germany saying Europe's largest economy is "stepping up."
"Germany is investing significantly more than they did just a few years ago. Germany now has the third largest defense budget in NATO after the U.S. and U.K. so we've seen a significant change when it comes to Germany's contributions to our collective defense."