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On NATO’s 70th Birthday, Trump Takes Credit for Increased Burden Sharing in Defense Spending

" Trump said of improved burden-sharing among the pact's 29 independent member countries, but stated that "Germany, honestly, is not paying their fair share."

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trump, NATO
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, April 2, 2019. VOA

Cindy Saine at the State Department and Valeria Jegisman of VOA’s Russian Service contributed to this report.

U.S. President Donald Trump is warming toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), praising the alliance and its leader Tuesday during meetings with its secretary-general.

“Tremendous progress has been made,” Trump said of improved burden-sharing among the pact’s 29 independent member countries, but stated that “Germany, honestly, is not paying their fair share.”

Trump reiterated his concern that while America spends a lot of money to protect Europe, “they’re taking advantage of us on trade.”

Trump, alongside Jens Stoltenberg in front of the Oval Office fireplace, praised him for an excellent job running NATO.

“We get along really well,” Trump said of the former Norwegian prime minister.

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U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a reporter’s question while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, April 2, 2019. VOA

The president took credit for the turnaround of the alliance he had previously referred to as obsolete.

“As you know when I came it wasn’t so good, and now, they’re catching up” to the goal of members spending two percent of their gross domestic product on defense.

“But I think it should be higher,” added Trump.

Stoltenberg thanked the president for his “strong leadership on burden sharing,” adding, “we have stepped up in our joint fight against terrorism and we are investing more.”

Trump was asked by a reporter about Russia, the Cold War nemesis that led to the alliance’s creation.

“I hope that it’s not going to be a security threat. I think we’ll get along with Russia,” replied Trump, whose 2016 presidential campaign was the target of a two-year investigation by a special counsel for alleged ties to Moscow.

In a subsequent expanded meeting in the Cabinet Room, Stoltenberg, sitting across from Trump, stated that Russia is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, noting “NATO allies have supported the U.S. position on that strongly.”

Defense spending

Since becoming president in 2017, Trump’s threats to “do his own thing” if NATO states did not meet defense spending targets plunged the organization into crisis.

Only seven of the 29 member states reached the GDP spending commitment in 2018, but that is considered an improvement from previous years.

During Tuesday’s expanded bilateral meeting, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton made note of the increased defense spending by NATO members.

“Now we have the common challenge of making sure it’s spent efficiently,” said Bolton.

70th anniversary

NATO is officially marking its 70th anniversary in Washington this week. But there is a bit less pomp than might have been expected as alliance partners downgraded the celebration to a meeting of foreign ministers to avert the risk of further verbal attacks from the U.S. president.

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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, April 2, 2019. VOA

NATO membership “remains an integral part of U.S. security strategy,” a senior State Department official reassured reporters a few hours prior to Trump’s meeting with Stoltenberg.

As foreign ministers of NATO gather in Washington, foreign policy analysts are emphasizing it is one of the most successful military alliances in history and still relevant, pointing to its ability to adapt in dealing with a resurgent Russia, managing the crisis on the south of NATO’s flank, and new threats such as cybersecurity.

“NATO is adapting and allies are spending more on defense. And I think this administration is understanding more and more how critical NATO is to some of the challenges that it faces, including China,” Mark Simakovsky of the Atlantic Council tells VOA. “So, in many ways, NATO is far from obsolete.”

Value of alliance

Trump’s comments, political upheaval in Europe — including the impending British exit from the European Union — and calls by some to kick Turkey out of NATO, can leave the impression, however, that the defense alliance is fracturing.

“I don’t think that’s the case. The alliance is strong,” Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik tells VOA, pointing to increased political dialogues and military exercises among NATO’s members, as well as more U.S. military equipment and troops being brought to Europe.

“You’re not giving the money to somebody else. You’re not putting it into a NATO budget somewhere, you’re spending it on yourselves,” said McCain Institute Director Kurt Volker, who formerly served as U.S. ambassador to NATO. “But it is a demonstration of your commitment to your own security, which then gives NATO the confidence that this is a country that we can help defend as well, because they are committed to defense of their own territory.”

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FILE – Kurt Volker, then-United States Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 28, 2017. VOA

Others agree that defense spending is important, but they say the alliance is fundamentally about the members’ ability to trust each other, and Trump has damaged that trust.

“When an American president questions the value of the alliance, our enemies in Moscow and Beijing are now questioning whether or not NATO would come to the defense of some smaller NATO nations that the president has criticized as maybe not worthy of NATO’s defense,” said Simakovsky, a former Europe/NATO chief of staff in the policy office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. “But I don’t think at this summit the administration is going to be announcing any departure of the United States.”

Brooking Institution’s Robert Kagan is expressing concern that Trump’s attitude toward the European Union and expressed hostility toward the defense alliance could bring more chaos to the continent.

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“Think of Europe today as an unexploded bomb, its detonator intact and functional, its explosives still live. If this is an apt analogy, then Trump is a child with a hammer, gleefully and heedlessly pounding away. What could go wrong?” wrote Kagan in an upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs. (VOA)

Next Story

Advance Of Summit, NATO Pacify Trump

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal

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Flags of NATO member countries
Flags of NATO member countries are seen at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. VOA

As Britain prepares for the NATO leaders’ meeting outside London December 3-4, the alliance said Thursday it had agreed to redistribute costs and cut the U.S. contribution to its central budget.

NATO’s central budget is relatively small at around $2.5 billion a year, mostly covering headquarters operations and staff, and different than its defense budget. U.S. President Donald Trump often complains of inequitable burden-sharing, with only nine of the 29 member countries meeting the 2%  of gross domestic product target for the alliance’s defense spending.

Regarding the central budget, “The U.S. will pay less, Germany will pay more, so now the U.S. and Germany will pay the same,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Paris Thursday.

The United States currently pays about 22% of NATO’s central budget. Beginning 2021, both U.S. and Germany will contribute about 16%.

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal to create a working group of “respected figures” to discuss reform in the alliance and address concerns about its future.

The announcement to reduce the American contribution is seen as a move to placate Trump, who has considered withdrawing from the alliance but has since taken credit for its promised reforms.

“In 2016, only four allies spent 2%  of GDP on defense,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday, adding that there are now nine countries, including the U.S.,  meeting the 2% target, with 18 expected to do so by 2024.

“This is tremendous progress, and I think it is due to the president’s diplomatic work,” he said.

 U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO
A convoy of U.S. vehicle is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

Internal strife

Leaders of the 29 member states will attempt a show of unity during the summit but the alliance is facing questioning about its relevance and unity, particularly after the October withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO.

“It’s exactly in the wake of that decision that you had [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron say what he said about the alliance being ‘brain-dead’ and referencing the lack of American leadership in the sense of leading in a community and not just going out on your own,” said Gary Schmitt, a NATO analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Syria prompted Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. The move spurred Macron to vent his frustration over what French diplomats say is NATO’s lack of coordination at a political level, and triggered fear among allies that the assault will undermine the battle against Islamic State militants.

Meanwhile, a simmering war between Russia and Ukraine has become the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment, with the American president allegedly having withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate running against Trump. Kyiv needs the aid to counter Moscow’s aggression.

The two conflicts in Europe’s eastern and southern flank further complicate Washington’s already-strained relations with other NATO members. Meanwhile, despite American efforts to reassure European leaders of Washington’s continuing commitment, anxiety about U.S. neglect of NATO under Trump persists, said Hans Kundnani, Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine. VOA

Kundnani noted a series of American officials who have come to reassure Europeans not to take Trump’s tweets too seriously and focus on what is happening on the ground, particularly the military reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank. Still, Kundnani said that in the last year Europeans have started to realize it’s “not really good enough” and they’re now facing the “reality of the of the crisis in NATO.”

“Some of them are hoping that Trump will be out of office in in a year’s time but the real fear is that Trump wins a second term,” said Kundnani, adding that some Europeans are hoping that “U.S. gradual withdrawal from Europe” might “snap back to the status quo ante if Trump is not re-elected.”

Diverging European responses

“The upcoming celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary will be marked by important divisions within the alliance — not just across the Atlantic, but also within Europe,” said Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In Paris, the view is “strategic autonomy,” said Donfried, with many in France concluding that Washington’s security guarantee can no longer be relied on. Warsaw is promoting “strategic embrace”  developing close bilateral relationship with Trump to guarantee its own security, while Berlin is advocating “strategic patience.”

Germany in the middle is a little bit divided between the “Atlanticists” and the “post-Atlanticists,”   Kundani said, adding that “Europeans are very much arguing” about these approaches.

Donfried said that against this backdrop, NATO allies are approaching the London summit with a sense of foreboding, knowing that they carry the responsibility to articulate alliance’s common purpose and ongoing relevance.

“If they don’t, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will be raising a glass in Moscow to the fraught state of the alliance at 70,” she said.

Another summit goal for most European leaders, is to simply avoid a Trump flare-up, like those that have happened in past meetings.

NATO meetings
President Donald Trump meets with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations General Assembly, New York. VOA

Many have discovered this can be achieved through flattery. “They can talk about all the things that they’ve done and very smartly suggest that President Trump has generated the kind of pressure to make those things happen,” Schmitt said.

“They can actually praise President Trump, even though this is very hard for them to do because of the personality clashes.”

Many will be watching Trump’s encounters with Macron, including their bilateral meeting, as well as with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has pleaded for Trump to stay out of the upcoming British election during his London trip.

The senior administration official said that Trump is “aware of this” and “absolutely cognizant of not wading into other countries’ elections.”

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Other potential clashes are simmering too. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Emmanuel Macron’s NATO “brain-death” warning reflects a “sick and shallow” understanding, telling the French president “you should check whether you are brain dead.”

The French foreign ministry has summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Paris to protest the statement. (VOA)