Trump scolds NATO allies on their military spending

Julie Pace and Jonathan Lemire
Associated Press

Brussels — Surrounded by stone-faced allies, President Donald Trump rebuked fellow NATO members Thursday for failing to meet the military alliance’s financial benchmarks, asserting that leaves it weaker and shortchanges “the people and taxpayers of the United States.”

Trump, who has often complained back home about other nations’ NATO support, lectured the other leaders in person this time, declaring, “Many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years.”

The president’s assertion immediately put NATO under new strain and did nothing to quiet questions about his complicated relationship with an alliance he has previously panned as “obsolete.” Notably, he also did not offer an explicit public endorsement of NATO’s “all for one, one for all” collective defense principle, though White House officials said his mere presence at the meeting signaled his commitment.

Fellow NATO leaders occasionally exchanged awkward looks with each other during the president’s lecture, which occurred at an event commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

NATO officials had expected Trump to raise the payments issue during Thursday’s meeting, even preparing Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg for the prospect that the president could try to pull off a stunt like handing out invoices. But one European official said NATO members were still taken aback by the aggressive tone of his speech.

As a presidential candidate, Trump railed against NATO’s financial burden-sharing, suggesting the U.S. might only come to the defense of countries that meet the alliance’s guidelines — for committing 2 percent of their gross domestic product to military spending. A White House official said the president wanted to deliver the same direct message in front of NATO allies.

Trump’s public scolding was all the more remarkable given the fact that he has actually backed away from some of his most provocative comments on foreign policy issues since taking office. He’s retracted his vow to label China a currency manipulator and has lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping. During a visit to Saudi Arabia this week, he called Islam one of the world’s great religions after declaring during the campaign that “Islam hates us

But few issues appear to have as much staying power with Trump as the uneven financial contributions of NATO members. Last year, only five of the 28 countries met the 2 percent goal: the U.S., Greece, Britain, Estonia and Poland.

During a private dinner Thursday night, the 28 members, plus soon-to-join Montenegro, renewed an old pledge to move toward the 2 percent by 2024 — a move the White House touted as a sign of Trump’s influence.

Some of the allies — particularly Eastern European nations deeply worried about Russian aggression — were hopeful that Trump would state a firm commitment to NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense agreement, which underpins the entire alliance.

Instead, he highlighted NATO’s decision to invoke the article for the only time after 9/11 and said the U.S. would “never forsake the friends that stood by our side.”

The White House insisted Trump had not intended to leave wiggle room on his commitment to coming to the defense of NATO members.