WASHINGTON — The head of NATO said Monday he will ask European nations to spend more on defense at a September summit in Wales of heads of state in response to crises that are testing the Western alliance from Ukraine to Iraq and Syria.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said all 28 of its members should devote at least 2 percent of their gross domestic products to the military.
“We’re surrounded by conflict, danger, disorder and autocratic regimes -- an arc of instability from the Middle East to North Africa and beyond, rising tensions and territorial disputes in Asia, and revisionist Russia breaking international rules and undermining trust,” Rasmussen told foreign ambassadors and influential strategic thinkers at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, praised Estonia for recently joining the United States, Britain and Greece as the only NATO members who currently spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. The United States spends about 4 percent, a bigger share than any other ally.
Turkey, Poland, Romania, Latvia and Lithuania have committed to reach the 2 percent level by 2020, Rasmussen said.
“I am the first to say that some European nations can and should do more,” Rasmussen said. “NATO is an insurance policy against instability. All members must pay their premiums _ and that premium has just gone up.”
If all 28 members’ defense spending reached 2 percent of their GDPs, Rasmussen said, NATO would have an extra $90 billion -- equivalent to the combined military budgets of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway.
Rasmussen hailed the $1 billion European Reassurance Initiative that President Barack Obama proposed in Poland last month, but he acknowledged a U.S. diplomats comment from the audience that lawmakers are reluctant to approve it until Europeans spend more on their own defense.
“At the summit in Wales, we need to turn a corner and start to see defense spending rise in real dollars for the first time since the end of the Cold War,” Rasmussen said.
Acknowledging that European economies have been under stress, Rasmussen said they are starting to grow.
“Increasing defense spending is never easy,” he said. “But in light of the threats we face, it has become a necessity.”
While Rasmussen said NATO would be unlikely to intervene in Iraq or Syria, partly because of “lessons learned” from its troubled foray into Libya three years ago, he reiterated that the Western alliance will defend NATO member Turkey from violence spilling over its southern border from Islamist militants’ gains in those countries.
Even as he castigated Europeans for spending too little on defense, Rasmussen said all NATO allies are playing key roles in helping respond to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
“From the Baltics to the Black Sea, we have more planes in the air, more ships at sea and more troops on the ground,” he said. “The United States took the lead, and its continuing leadership remains crucial, but more of the planes are European, most of the ships are European and many of the troops are European.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that NATO Secretary General Rasmussen spoke at the Wilson Center. It was at the Atlantic Council.