WASHINGTON – Marking the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the world’s most famous NATO critic – President Donald Trump – focused Tuesday on the money being paid by members of the historic U.S.-European military alliance.
“Tremendous progress has been made,” Trump said in welcoming NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to the White House.
Stoltenberg, meanwhile, thanked Trump for his “strong commitment to NATO,” especially his “strong leadership on burden sharing.”
While Trump and Stoltenberg have long been known to say nice things about each other, their latest meeting took place amid lingering tensions caused by Trump’s attacks on the alliance, especially his claims that some countries aren’t contributing enough to mutual defense.
“There are many countries that take advantage of us very seriously, both at NATO and on trade,” Trump told a group of U.S. governors Feb. 25, though he also praised NATO countries for increasing defense spending by some $100 billion in recent years.
“I have a great relationship with the leaders – but we have to be treated fairly,” Trump said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Trump took credit for an increase in defense funding by some NATO members, but also said the organization’s spending goal – 2% of gross domestic product per country – “may have to go up.”
“When I came it wasn’t so good, and now they’re catching up,” Trump said.
Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, called Trump’s comments “extremely disappointing,” noting that the president did not discuss the 70th anniversary and NATO’s accomplishments over those seven decades, including its help in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
“He only paid attention to one issue: How much money they’re paying,” Burns said. “That’s all he cares about.”
Charles Kupchan, an adviser on Europe for President Barack Obama, said Trump sees NATO as a political issue, and getting allies to do more was one of his pledges. Trump simply “declared victory on the spending front,” Kupchan said, and that enabled him to praise NATO as much as he ever has during his meeting with Stoltenberg.
“Supporters of NATO like me breathed a sigh of relief,” said Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.
Trump often casts NATO spending in terms of how other countries owe the United States money, but that is not how NATO finances work: Each country pays for NATO commitments out of its own defense budgets.
During a 2014 summit in Wales, NATO members agreed to increase defense budgets so they would be at least 2% of their gross domestic product by the year 2024.
Stoltenberg, who has a series of 70th anniversary events in Washington this week, including an address to a joint session of Congress, has often downplayed NATO disputes with Trump.
“The strength of NATO is that, despite these differences, we have always been able to unite around our core tasks,” he told reporters before leaving Brussels on Monday. “That is, to protect and defend each other.”
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Criticism of international alliances, including NATO, has been a hallmark of Trump’s political career.
During his presidential campaign, Trump claimed NATO had become “obsolete.” In a speech at his first NATO summit as president in 2017, Trump did not endorse the commitment of the 29 alliance countries to come to the defense of any member that is attacked. The president has frequently complained that too many NATO members, particularly Germany, don’t spend enough money on mutual defense.
Yet Trump has also mixed his messages toward NATO.
During a White House news conference with Stoltenberg in April 2017, Trump changed his tune about the relevance of the alliance: “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”
Later that year, a few weeks after returning from that first NATO summit, Trump did indeed endorse the mutual defense commitment contained in Article 5 of the NATO treaty signed in 1949.
In January, The New York Times reported that “several times over the course of 2018,” Trump privately told advisers he wanted to withdraw from NATO, a move that would all but destroy the alliance.
A few days later, in a speech at the Pentagon, Trump expressed support for NATO, but also included a warning. “We will be with NATO 100%,” he said, “but as I told the countries, you have to step up.”
Trump repeated the 100% line in his Oval Office meeting Tuesday with Stoltenberg, who has often served as a bridge between NATO members and the critical U.S. president.
Some NATO members remain suspicious of Trump, fearful he is willing to undermine the alliance that remains on the front lines in the fight against terrorism. Critics also said that a weakened NATO would be less willing to contain an expansionist Russia as it threatens Ukraine and other neighbors.
Two former U.S. ambassadors to NATO, Burns and and Douglas Lute, wrote in a new report that Trump “is regarded widely in NATO capitals as the Alliance’s most urgent, and often most difficult, problem.”
In their report – released in February with the title “NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis” – Burns and Lute noted that NATO did not hold a major summit this week to mark the 70th anniversary because “they feared President Trump would blow up a meeting in controversy as he has done each time he has met with NATO leaders during the past two years.”
Instead, NATO has a scaled-back summit scheduled for December in London, in addition to ceremonial events this week in Washington.
Burns, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Harvard University, said too many leaders of NATO countries believe Trump doesn’t want to lead the alliance, but has instead become its “chief critic.”
“The president has been, at best, ambivalent about the alliance,” he said.
Some analysts said they expected Trump to mute his criticism of NATO during this week of commemorations.
Despite Trump’s attacks, NATO has remained resilient and popular with U.S. lawmakers and the public, Kupchan said.
“At the end of the day, he’s a politician, and I just don’t see anything in it for him” to attack NATO at this point, he said. “I don’t see how Trump would consider that to be a political winner.”