Brussels, the city I've called my home since I became secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2014, is only a couple of hours' drive from some of the bloodiest battlefields of the twentieth century.
Many of them, such as Bastogne and the Nijmegen bridge, were the sites of outstanding acts of courage on the part of American soldiers. The Europeans will always be grateful for the sacrifices these men made to return freedom to our shores.
NATO was created in 1949 to ensure that none of us has to experience another world war. The outcome of the partnership has been an unprecedented period of peace and security for the citizens of North America and Europe.
US UU They have had close allies and friends in NATO that no other world power can match. Together, the 29 countries of the alliance represent half of the world's economic and military might.
But for all of NATO's achievements, we can not be complacent. Facing the most complex and dangerous security environment in a generation, we must invest more in our collective defense. In an unpredictable world, we must do whatever it takes to keep our nations safe.
All NATO allies understand this. At our 2014 summit, each nation agreed to stop cutting defense budgets, increase spending and spend 2% of their respective gross national defense products within a decade.
That promise is fulfilled. After many years of decline, the allies have put an end to the cuts and have begun to increase national defense expenditures. Last year, NATO allies increased their defense budgets by 5.2% combined, the largest increase, in real terms, in a quarter of a century. Now 2018 will be the fourth consecutive year in which spending increases.
In 2014, only three allies, the United States, the United Kingdom and Greece, reached the 2% target. This year, we expect that number to increase to eight, adding Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. In addition, most allies have plans to meet their commitments of 2% by 2024, while the rest moves in the right direction. There is still a long way to go, but NATO members have reversed defense spending.
President Trump has spoken openly on this issue and thanked him for his leadership when we met at the White House in May. The increase in NATO defense spending over the last year and a half shows that their efforts are making a difference.
The credibility of NATO as an alliance – in the eyes of others, and those of our potential adversaries – is based on sharing the defense burden quite a lot. Before our summit from July 11 to 12 in Brussels, I have been carrying that message with me every time I meet with allied leaders.
However, the increase in spending is only part of the equation. The allies are also directing that money where it will matter. When NATO leaders signed the 2% guideline, they also pledged to put at least 20% of their defense budgets on new major teams, such as fighter jets, tanks and warships. As a result, NATO countries have added $ 18 billion in equipment expenses since 2014.
At the same time, NATO forces are doing more, in more places and in more ways, to strengthen our shared security . They are training Afghanistan's security forces to bring stability to their country and create the conditions for peace and reconciliation. That's why NATO has increased its troop numbers to 16,000, compared to 13,000 last year. Over the past decade, NATO countries have provided more than $ 2 billion for the Afghan army. At the next summit, I hope allied leaders extend their funds beyond 2020.
NATO has also been training Iraqis, and at the next summit we will launch a new mission to take advantage of those efforts. Hundreds of NATO troops will help train Iraqi forces to secure their country and ensure that the Islamic State does not return.
From the Balkans to the North Atlantic, from the Black Sea to the Baltic, American and European soldiers, aviators and airmen are working together through NATO to keep our nations safe. They do it because we have common interests, history and values, and because the ties that unite us are profound.
That's why the NATO allies invoked Article 5, our mutual defense clause, after 9/11, the first and only time we have done it That is why hundreds of thousands of European and Canadian soldiers have been shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers in Afghanistan. More than 1,000 of them have made the ultimate sacrifice.
It is no secret that there are differences among NATO countries on serious issues such as trade, climate change and Iran's nuclear agreement. But we have always managed to overcome our differences before. Two world wars and one Cold War have taught a simple but powerful lesson: United, we are stronger and safer.
Mr. Stoltenberg is the general secretary of NATO.