US President Donald Trump stole the show at a meeting of NATO heads of state yesterday (25 May) when he doubled down on his demands for other members to pay more in an opening speech.
Trump lectured leaders from the 27 other NATO countries in his debut speech, demanding they “finally contribute their fair share” because it is “not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States” that they spend so much more on defence than the alliance’s other members.
The speech made no reference to the NATO pledge for members to defend each other if they’re attacked, which is set out in Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty. Diplomats were expecting to hear Trump mention his commitment to the “collective defence” clause in his remarks. But its absence may have instead compounded fears about Trump’s attitude towards NATO.
Trump’s behaviour seemed to puzzle other leaders and NATO diplomats involved in organising the meeting. He was caught on camera shoving Montegrin Prime Minister Dusco Markovic to reach the front of the crowd of leaders as they gathered for the pre-meeting ceremony. Montenegro is set to become a NATO member next month. It was both Markovic and Trump’s first NATO meeting.
Trump’s bold, harsh comments aimed at European leaders struck a contrast to Trump’s much more cordial meetings with Saudi and other Arab leaders when he started his first foreign trip last week in Saudi Arabia. At one point, Trump’s references to spending ahead of the meeting caused some other leaders to smirk while he spoke.
Trump’s refusal to explicitly refer to the NATO defence commitment could make an early dent in his relationship with Europeans—only four months into his presidency.
“If he fails in convincing his European allies that he clearly understands what NATO is about and the essence of Article 5 then he will lose a lot of credibility in Europe,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary general and Danish prime minister, told EURACTIV.com.
Current NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg defended Trump after the meeting, telling reporters that he had received a “clear message” from the US president that “the US is committed to NATO and it’s not possible to be committed to NATO without being committed to Article 5 and our collective defence clause”.
Stoltenberg said that Trump had shown the “strongest possible sign of commitment to our alliance” in his new draft budget plan, which includes a “40% increase in funding for US military presence in Europe”. The plan also suggests massive cuts to social welfare, environmental protection and international aid programmes and has been hit with intense criticism in the US.
Trump’s first visit to NATO’s Brussels headquarters was burdened by his earlier criticisms of the alliance, which he called “obsolete” shortly before taking office in January.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel took a subtle jab at the now famous remark, saying “our common values are not obsolete” during a ceremony where he “handed over” the territory of NATO’s new building from Belgium to the alliance before the meeting started. Belgium is the third lowest paying NATO member and contributed 0.9% of its GDP to defence spending in 2017.
Trump gave a backhanded compliment to the new building, telling the other leaders, “I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost. I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly called on other members of the alliance to meet the 2% of GDP goal that their countries agreed to in 2014, which only the US, UK, Poland, Estonia and Greece currently do. Most member states are also NATO members, except Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Cyprus and Malta.
In March, Trump accused Germany of owing “vast sums” to NATO and the US because it pays below the 2% threshold. But countries do not have debt or owe NATO money if they underpay.
Stoltenberg said Trump has frequently been “very blunt”. But the NATO chief thinks that “all allies are aware of the importance of fair burden sharing”.
NATO members committed to laying out how they will reach the 2% threshold by the end of this year and several already presented their plans at the meeting, Stoltenberg said.
He also told reporters that NATO will join the US-led Coalition Against Isis; all of its members are already part of the anti-terror group. NATO will focus its involvement on training troops and intelligence.
Stoltenberg partially rebutted one of Trump’s statements. In his opening remarks, Trump said, “The NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration.” Stoltenberg didn’t seem to think of migration as a focus of the alliance.
“When it comes to migration, that’s not a core task for NATO but it is an area where NATO also plays a role,” he said, referencing NATO ships that bring migrants to the EU when they are found traveling in the Aegean Sea. Under the EU’s agreement with Turkey, immigrants are then sent back to Turkey and allowed to return legally to the EU if they qualify for asylum.
“We’re also addressing some of the root causes for some of the migration” by stabilising countries in Africa and the Middle East, Stoltenberg added.
Before going to the NATO meeting, Trump met with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, and also had lunch with new French President Emmanuel Macron.
Tusk said after their meeting that he was “not 100% sure that we can say today” that he and Trump “have a common opinion about Russia, although when it comes to the conflict in Ukraine, it seems that we were on the same line”.