Trump Sets Confrontational Tone At Start Of Two-Day NATO Summit

RFE - Wednesday 11th July, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump has set a confrontational tone at the start of NATO's two-day summit in Brussels, criticizing Germany for making natural-gas pipeline deals worth 'billions of dollars' with Russia while expecting the United States to 'protect them against Russia.'

In a dramatic exchange during a breakfast gathering with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that opened the alliance's meeting on July 11, Trump said that Germany was 'totally controlled by Russia' and 'captive to Russia' because of its dependence on natural gas and deals with Moscow like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

'We're protecting Germany. We're protecting France. We're protecting everybody,' Trump said, adding that 'it's very unfair to our country. It's very unfair to our taxpayers.'

Trump urged NATO to look into the issue of Nord Stream 2 -- a project that would bring gas from Russia to Germany's northeastern Baltic coast, bypassing countries like Poland and Ukraine and doubling the amount of gas Russia can send directly to Germany.

Washington and some European Union countries oppose the project, warning that it could give Moscow greater leverage over Western Europe.

Stoltenberg pushed back against Trump's criticism, stressing that NATO is an alliance of 29 countries that have been able to work together despite their differences -- and 'the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is one issue where NATO allies will disagree.'

'I think two World Wars and the Cold War taught us that we are stronger together than apart,' Stoltenberg told Trump.

The summit is shaping up to be one of the most difficult alliance gatherings in years as Trump continues to pressure NATO allies to increase their military spending.

Trump has repeatedly criticized alliance members for their levels of defense spending ahead of the meeting.

In a series of tweets and comments to reporters as he departed Washington, D.C., on July 10, Trump suggested NATO's other 28 members should 'reimburse' the United States for its spending on the alliance.

He also repeated misleading statements about which countries are meeting the alliance's Defense Investment Pledge, in which each member state is expected to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, and about when those falling short are expected to meet that goal.

Based on current trends, NATO estimates that 15 member states will meet the benchmark by 2024.

NATO headquarters says the alliance is on track to increase its overall defense spending by 3.8 percent in 2018, and a total of eight members are expected to reach the 2 percent benchmark by the end of 2018.

Stoltenberg, for his part, credited Trump at their July 11 breakfast meeting for pushing NATO countries to increase defense spending -- noting that European countries and Canada are expected to 'add an extra $266 billion to defense between now and 2024.'

Upon his arrival at the opening breakfast, Trump said that 'because of me they've raised about $40 billion over the last year. So I think the secretary-general likes Trump. He may be the only one, but that's OK with me.'

Trump told reporters in Washington on July 10 the United States had 'a lot of allies. But we cannot be taken advantage of. We're being taken advantage of by the European Union.' U.S. spending on NATO 'helps them more than it helps us.'

A defense spending level of at least 2 percent of GDP has long been a guideline for each NATO member state, until it was set in 2014 under President Barack Obama as a formal commitment.

NATO headquarters said the alliance is on track to increase its overall defense spending by 3.8 percent in 2018, and a total of eight members are expected to reach the 2 percent guideline by the end of the year.

Trump's criticism has elicited pushback from NATO and European leaders in the past, and European Council President Donald Tusk chided him on July 10.

'I would like to address President Trump...who for a long time now has been criticizing Europe almost daily for in his view insufficient contributions to the common defense capabilities and for living off the U.S.,' Tusk told a news conference.

'Dear President Trump, America does not have and will not have a better ally than Europe.'

'Dear America, appreciate your allies -- after all, you don't have that many,' Tusk added, and also urged European countries to 'spend more on your defense because everyone respects an ally that is well-prepared and equipped.'

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Trump's criticism of the alliance has stood in stark contrast with his warm words for NATO's main adversary, Russia.

Trump is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16, following the conclusion of the NATO meeting and a trip to Britain.

Asked by a reporter whether Putin was a 'a friend or foe,' Trump responded: 'I really can't say right now.

'As far as I'm concerned, he's a competitor,' he said. 'I think that getting along with Russia, getting along with China, is a good thing.'

Of his meetings in Brussels and Britain and with Putin, he said: 'Frankly, [the meeting with] Putin may be the easiest of them all -- who would think? Who would think?'

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Among the responses that Trump and White House officials have suggested if NATO members don't increase spending is to reduce the U.S. military presence in Europe.

Some alliance members have privately voiced concern that Trump might also pull out of a major upcoming military exercises, including one, Trident Juncture, scheduled for October. Another set for November, called Anakonda, will be testing the alliance response in defending NATO member Poland.

On July 10, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson and the U.S. Senate both sought to allay concerns among allies the United States was backing away from NATO, or from the alliance treaty's Article 5, which stipulates that an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all.

In a call with reporters, Hutchinson said Trump 'is committed to Article 5 protection just as it is in the NATO charter.... And I think that any indication that we're walking away from the NATO charter and the commitments that we've made would be erroneous.

As Trump arrived in Brussels, the U.S. Senate passed by a 97-2 margin a motion to 'reaffirm the ironclad U.S. commitment under Article 5 to the collective defense of the alliance.'

Mitch McConnell, who holds wide influence as the Republican leader of the Senate, was asked on July 10 about Trump's threats to the alliance.

'I'm not worried about Trump pulling out of NATO,' he told reporters.

WATCH: NATO leaders gather for a summit on July 11-12 amid deep divisions on trade and defense spending.

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The NATO summit is also being attended by leaders of so-called NATO partner states that are not members of the alliance.

Stoltenberg said alliance leaders on July 12 will meet with the presidents of Georgia and Ukraine 'to address regional challenges' and to 'discuss their defense reforms and NATO's continuing support.'

He said he expected NATO leaders to agree to invite Skopje to start accession talks as a result of a 'historic agreement on the name issue' between Greece and Macedonia.

'Once the agreement is finalized and implemented, we will be able to invite the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia to become NATO's 30th member under its new name -- the Republic of North Macedonia.'

The summit closes on July 12 with a meeting by countries involved in the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.

Stoltenberg said he expected the NATO summit will 'agree to extend funding for the Afghan forces beyond 2020,' to express full support for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's 'bold peace initiative,' and his government's reforms.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and ABC

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036