NATO's secretary general is meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin Thursday against a backdrop of challenges for the transatlantic military alliance and rising tensions in Europe. But there is skepticism over what role NATO can, and should, play in de-escalating international disputes, as divisions remain within the organization.
The meeting between NATO's leader Jens Stoltenberg and Merkel comes amid a continuing crackdown against protesters in Belarus, which neighbors the European Union, and mounting tensions between NATO members (but historical rivals) Greece and Turkey in the Mediterranean, as well as the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in Germany.
Addressing the situation in Belarus, where protesters continue to call for the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko after a disputed election result earlier in August, Stoltenberg denied accusations that NATO troops were gathering at the country's border with Poland and Lithuania.
"NATO has no military build-up in the region so any excuse to use that as an excuse to crack down on peaceful protesters is absolutely unjustified," Stoltenberg, who arrived in Berlin on Wednesday to meet with senior German officials and attend an informal meeting of EU defense ministers, said.
He also addressed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany. This decision was made by U.S. President Donald Trump who has repeatedly lambasted NATO members — and particularly Germany — for not meeting a target agreed in 2014 for members of the organization to spend no less than 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense spending.
Although Germany has increased defense spending since 2014, it has still not reached the 2% target. The most recent NATO estimate predicts that the country spent 1.38% on defense spending in 2019, while the U.S. is estimated to have spent 3.42%. In fact, only nine members of the 30-country alliance reach the agreed 2% target in 2019, NATO estimates suggest. Lower defense spending among some European NATO members is believed to be a key factor behind Trump's announcement earlier this year that the U.S. would withdraw around 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany.
Addressing the U.S. move, NATO's secretary general said it's important that NATO allies "continue to consult closely because (the) U.S. presence in Europe is important, both for the security of Europe, and for the security of the United States."
Fabrice Pothier, chief strategy officer at Rasmussen Global, told CNBC Thursday that NATO was riven with divisions between its members. The most current spat is between NATO members Greece and Turkey, with both conducting rival naval military exercises off the island of Crete amid competing claims over oil and natural gas exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The spat has caused a rift in NATO, and within Europe, with the U.S. reportedly conducting naval exercises with Turkey, while France has conducted drills with Greece.
"The real squeeze for NATO is from the inside. Yes, there are crises on the outside in Belarus, in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, but fundamentally it is squeezed from the inside because some of the big members, the U.S., Turkey, France, are not seeing eye to eye," Pothier told CNBC's Squawk Box Europe.
"I think on the inside (of NATO) there is a real political crisis simmering," he added.
"And with the case of France and Turkey, we are witnessing some kind of escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean so I think the real political conversation between Jens Stoltenberg and Chancellor Merkel will be more about how do we solve these political issues between our member states," he said.
Ahead of the informal meeting with EU defense ministers Wednesday, Stoltenberg addressed rising tensions between Greece and Turkey and called for dialog.
"Turkey and Greece have both been important NATO allies for many years. We need to find a way to resolve the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean based on the spirit of allied solidarity," Stoltenberg said