BRUSSELS (REUTERS, NYTIMES) – US President Donald Trump hailed a personal victory at a Nato summit on Thursday (July 12), saying allies had sharply increased defence spending commitments after he provoked a crisis session with a tirade at European leaders.
“I told people that I would be very unhappy if they didn’t up their commitments,” an ebullient president told reporters after the second day of the Brussels meeting, when Nato leaders huddled with Trump to try to defuse a crisis.
“I let them know that I was extremely unhappy,” he said, but added that the talks had ended on the best of terms: “It all came together at the end. It was a little tough for a little while.”
Officials at the meeting said Trump had shocked many present and broke with diplomatic protocol by addressing German Chancellor Merkel by her first name, telling her: “Angela, you need to do something about this”.
Most officials and the invited leaders of non-Nato Afghanistan and Georgia were ushered out. Others in the room, including the Lithuanian president whose country is among the most nervous of Russian ambitions, denied a suggestion that Trump had threatened to quit the alliance.
When asked about that, Trump said he believed he could do that without Congressional approval but it was “not necessary”. Instead, he said, the other 28 allies had agreed to increase their defence spending more quickly to meet a Nato target of 2 per cent of their national income within a few years.
The current commitment is to reach 2 per cent by 2024 but with get-out terms that would allow some to stretch it out to 2030. Trump stressed that Nato’s budget had been unfair to the United States but now he was sure it would be fair. Allies would be increasing spending by US$33 billion or more, he added.
He also said he thought spending of 4 per cent on defence – similar to the US level – would be the right level.
“TOTAL CREDIT TO ME”
“We have a very powerful, very strong Nato, much stronger than it was two days ago,” he said. Citing the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, he said: “Secretary Stoltenberg gives us total credit, meaning me, I guess, in this case, total credit. Because I said it was unfair.”
“The numbers have gone up like a rocket ship ... and they’re going to be going up further,” he said. “Everybody in that room got along and they agreed to pay more and they agreed to pay it more quickly.”
Merkel said: “We had a very intense summit.”
Trump had opened the first day of talks in Brussels on Wednesday with a public diatribe against Germany, the second biggest state in the Western defence alliance, criticising its reliance on Russian gas imports and failure to spend more on defence.
The mood had appeared to have calmed as the summit went into its second day, focusing on operations beyond Europe. But, several sources said, Trump instead reopened in strong terms his demand that other countries spend more immediately.
“The language was much tougher today,” one source told Reuters. “His harshest words were directed at Germany, including by calling her Angela –’You, Angela.’”
As well as Merkel, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Charles Michel, the prime minister of Belgium, were singled out by Trump for undershooting on their spending targets when US taxpayers, funding a defence budget worth about 3.6 per cent of their national income, foot much of Nato’s bills.
PRIMED FOR CONFRONTATION
Trump was primed for confrontation before the gathering was even called to order in a large glass-and-steel Nato headquarters building that he has complained looks overly lavish.
At a breakfast with Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, Trump suggested that he had come to Brussels as a virtual pariah among allies, and was perfectly happy to be seen that way.
“I think the secretary-general likes Trump,” he said, alluding to allies’ stepping up their military spending in response to his pressure tactics. “He may be the only one, but that’s OK with me.”
Indeed, Trump spent the next several few hours practically ensuring it.
He laid into Germany for not spending more on its military while becoming increasingly dependent on Russia for its energy needs. His criticism was based on Germany’s deal to import natural gas from Russia via a new pipeline.
Later, he changed his tone and said he had a "great meeting" with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Trump dismissed as paltry – “a very small step,” the president said – the increases that Nato member countries have made in their military budgets in part because of his repeated lectures on the issue, eschewing a victory lap his advisers had encouraged him to take in favour of a sharp slap at allies.
“Frankly, many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent, as far as I’m concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them,” Trump said, mischaracterising how the commitments for Nato military spending work.
“This has gone on for many presidents, but no other president brought it up like I bring it up.”
“Something has to be done,” he added.
His comments came at a time when Trump’s own ties to Russia are under scrutiny and as he is also waging a spreading trade war that has ensnared allies – including Nato members like Canada and Germany – as well as foes and competitors like China.
His approach has fuelled concern among his critics at home and abroad that he is intent on deconstructing the post-war order and replacing it with an “America First” breed of transactional diplomacy.
At the same time, Trump’s aggressive pressure tactics have already yielded more military spending by Nato allies and a sharper focus on the issue of unbalanced burden-sharing within Nato that vexed Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him.
Behind closed doors, Trump suggested that Nato allies increase their military budgets not to the 2 per cent of their economies that they have pledged to work toward within the next six years, but to 4 per cent – a steep increase that is inconceivable for many member countries.
Later, he took to Twitter to demand that member countries get to 2 per cent “IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025.”
“What good is Nato if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy?” the president wrote. “Why are there only 5 out of 29 countries that have met their commitment? The US is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade.”
The United States spent less than 4 per cent of its gross domestic product on the military last year.
Unlike at the Group of 7 meeting in Quebec last month, Trump did not refuse to sign the declaration negotiated among officials of the member nations, although it was a mark of how much uncertainty he has created that his agreement to the basic statement of principles and goals was not a foregone conclusion.
The declaration said Nato countries “strongly condemn Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, which we do not and will not recognise.”
Last month, Trump had suggested that he might be open to acknowledging Russia’s claim to Crimea. “We’re going to have to see,” he told reporters when asked about it aboard Air Force One on June 29.
The first day of the summit meeting also illustrated the ways in which Trump’s foreign policy approach matched up with his domestic political strategy. Attacking allies over trade and their willingness to pay their share of military costs has played well with his political base.
The populist core of his coalition is fuelled in part by anger over what his supporters consider unfair treatment of the United States on matters of trade, immigration and international affairs.
“I think he feels it’s playing well with his base, fuelling this sense of grievance against allies and trading partners, which is how he got elected,” Alexander Vershbow, a former Nato deputy secretary-general, said of Trump in an interview.
“The danger,” Vershbow said, “is that he’s turning at least his base, and maybe other Americans, against Nato and against US global leadership by falsely defining it as a protection racket where we haven’t been paid enough by the protectees, rather than as a mutually beneficial alliance that has kept peace and expanded the frontiers of democracy.”
Trump’s condemnation of Germany also highlighted his determination to turn the tables on his critics, at a distance if not in person.
By pointing out the close connections between Germany and Russia on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and the degree to which they depend on each other financially, Trump was borrowing a page from his critics who suggest that because of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election on his behalf, he is beholden to Putin.
It was a way of implying that it is Germany’s leader, not he, who is too compromised to be able to effectively counter the Russian president.