Trump paints NATO allies as ‘delinquent’ for under-spending on defense

Trump paints NATO allies as ‘delinquent’ for under-spending on defense

By Luke Vargas   
President Donald Trump poses for photos with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday. (Courtesy: NATO)

President Trump stole the spotlight at NATO's annual summit Wednesday, berating Germany for a pipeline project and pushing allies to spend more on defense.

RIGA, LATVIA — As expected, President Donald Trump used a major gathering of NATO allies on Wednesday to badger the majority of member states for being “delinquent” after years of “not paying what they should” for defense.

“So if you go back 10 or 20 years, you’ll just add it all up, it’s massive amounts of money is owed,” Trump said during a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels. “The United States has paid and stepped up like nobody.”

To measure whether NATO allies are pulling their weight within the alliance, Trump repeatedly cited a voluntary commitment dating back to 2006, when members pledged to spend 2 percent of GDP on national defense. That pledge was renewed in 2014, as members gave themselves a full decade to increase spending.

New NATO spending figures show that five countries including the U.S. currently meet an alliance of goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Courtesy: NATO
Preliminary 2018 NATO spending figures show that five countries including the U.S. currently meet an alliance of goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. (Courtesy: NATO)

According to new spending data released this week, just five of 28 members clear the 2 percent target, as the likes of France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Spain fall far short.

“As a diplomat I’m bound to say that while it may be appropriate to raise the issues, the way you do it, the tone you employ, really matters for effectiveness.”

Sir Adam Thomson is the director of the European Leadership Network and served as Britain’s representative to NATO from 2014 to 2016.

“It’s perfectly true that European allies need to spend more on defense. But believe me they’ve heard Donald Trump. What they need help on is spending effectively rather than spending more.”

That wasn’t one of Trump’s talking points. Instead, he reportedly pushed for spending targets of 4 percent of GDP during closed-door meetings today  a figure that would exceed current U.S. spending. In a Wednesday evening Tweet, Trump failed to mention that more ambitious spending goal but did say the 2 percent target should be met “IMMEDIATELY.”

Trump’s other main barb on Wednesday was directed at Germany, which he blamed for continuing joint construction with Russia on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. NATO watchers worry the project hands Russia the ability to divide NATO allies since it would disentangle German energy flows from those of Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Trump did say Nord Stream 2 “should have never been allowed to have happened,” but he had another gripe about the project.

Germany is totally controlled by Russia, because they will be getting from 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline. And you tell me if that’s appropriate, because I think it’s not, and I think it’s a very bad thing for NATO and I don’t think it should have happened.”

Thomson agreed that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline “is a politically charged issue in Germany and across Europe,” but he said Trump’s implication that German Chancellor Angela Merkel blindly walked into the deal without considering the consequences was an overreach.

“To discuss the issue publicly in a way that suggests that Chancellor Merkel of all people  raised in East Germany  is somehow totally controlled by Russia, is not the best way, I would say, of getting the results you want from your friends and allies.”

So where does NATO go from here? Between a series of awkward “family photos,” members took a stab at demonstrating common purpose by signing a document known as the “Brussels Declaration on Transatlantic Security and Solidarity,” in which they recommitted to the “bedrock commitment to collective defence,” reiterated the threat posed by Russia and promised “to do more” to increase military spending.

But if Trump remains focused on top-level spending figures or continues to hold the alliance accountable for isolated projects undertaken by individual member states, Thomson thinks NATO could remain a target of Trump’s ire for years to come  even if alliance members increase spending or take steps to modernize their militaries.

Put simply, Thomson says, there’s a limit to how flashy a defensive alliance can appear.

“It’s hard to measure the success when success is measured in absence of something  absence of conflict, absence of sovereignty being undermined.”

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