The first leg of Donald Trump’s European tour ended in confusion on Thursday, with the U.S. President boasting that he had personally persuaded the other 28 members of the NATO alliance to dramatically increase their military spending – a claim that was immediately called into question by other leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The conflicting narratives – and reports that Mr. Trump privately suggested that the United States might “go it alone” and leave NATO – undermined the alliance’s efforts to look united ahead of a summit meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Helsinki. Many NATO members are worried that Mr. Trump will make a deal with Mr. Putin that compromises European security as part of a wider pact between the White House and the Kremlin.
“We have a very powerful, very strong NATO, much stronger than it was two days ago,” Mr. Trump said at the end of a two-day alliance summit in Brussels. “The [defence-spending] numbers have gone up like a rocket ship … and they’re going to be going up further. Everybody in that room got along, and they agreed to pay more, and they agreed to pay it more quickly.”
Mr. Trump’s press conference was hastily arranged and came on the heels of an emergency meeting of the NATO leadership that was prompted by the U.S. President’s harsh words for some allies – particularly Germany – as well as his demands that member countries not only immediately raise defence spending to 2 per cent of their country’s gross domestic products, but adopt a new target of 4 per cent.
The 2-per-cent figure has long been established as the expected level of contributions from NATO members, but only five of the 29 currently do so. Canada’s contribution for 2018 is estimated at 1.23 per cent.
“I told people I’d be very unhappy if they didn’t up their commitments very substantially,” Mr. Trump told the press conference. Hailing himself – not for the first time – as a “stable genius,” Mr. Trump said the tactic worked. “They have substantially upped their commitment, and now we’re very happy and have a very, very powerful, very, very strong NATO.”
That’s not what other leaders say happened. Mr. Trudeau and other leaders say they had only agreed to maintain the commitments made at a 2014 NATO summit in Wales, where all 29 members agreed to raise their defence spending to meet the 2-per-cent target by 2024.
“We are increasing our defence budget. Indeed, we’re increasing it by 70 per cent over the next decade,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Mr. Trudeau pushed back against the idea that Canada was not pulling its weight within the group, pointing to Canada’s leadership of a NATO mission in Latvia, which was extended for another four years this week, as well as a new alliance effort that will see 250 Canadian troops deploy to Baghdad later this year, where it will lead a mission to train Iraqi soldiers in counterterrorism tactics.
Asked directly whether Mr. Trump had lied in saying the alliance had agreed to new spending targets, Mr. Trudeau only repeated his earlier answer. “We reaffirmed our commitment to the Wales declaration.”
Other leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, supported Mr. Trudeau’s contention that there had been no new agreement to increase defence budgets. “There is no additional spending,” Mr. Conte told his own press conference.
There were also conflicting reports about whether Mr. Trump had threatened to pull the United States out of NATO if the other allies didn’t shoulder more of the spending burden.
Reuters reported that Mr. Trump told the other NATO leaders the United States “would go it alone” if the allies didn’t dramatically increase their spending by January, 2019.
However, Mr. Macron – who characterized the discussions as “frank” – disputed that account. “At no point did President Trump, neither in bilateral meetings nor in multilateral ones, say he would pull out of NATO … at least not when I was there. He didn’t say that to me,” the French President said.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr. Trump used his Twitter account to criticize Germany for buying Russian natural gas while relying on the U.S. military for protection. “Germany just started paying Russia, the country they want protection from, Billions of Dollars for their Energy needs coming out of a new pipeline from Russia. Not acceptable! All NATO Nations must meet their 2% commitment, and that must ultimately go to 4%!” he tweeted.
On Thursday, he blended calls for increased military spending with a sales pitch for U.S. military hardware. “The United States makes by far the best military equipment in the world … everybody wants to buy our equipment,” he told the press conference.
Despite the disagreements, some NATO observers said the summit had gone better than they had feared. Mr. Trump may have rattled nerves – and annoyed some long-time U.S. allies – with his tactics, but at least he didn’t walk away from the seven-decade-old alliance. Instead, Mr. Trump now seemed to perceive himself as the leader of NATO, dragging his reticent partners in a new direction.
“He’s not leaving Brussels with NATO weakened. From his perspective, he’s leaving Brussels with him as the leader of the alliance,” said Magnus Nordenman, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a NATO-affiliated think tank. “A lot of people were praying for the President to take a victory lap, take ownership as the leader of the alliance, and that’s exactly what he did. But the road to getting there was rather chaotic.”
That, Mr. Nordenman said, might encourage Mr. Trump to take a tougher line in his talks with Mr. Putin.
However, concern remains high that Mr. Trump will make concessions in Helsinki to Mr. Putin, whom many in the alliance view as a legitimate military threat in the wake of Russia’s 2014 seizure and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
Some alliance members are concerned that Mr. Trump will borrow a page from his recent summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – where Mr. Trump, without consulting his generals or the South Korean government, suspended U.S. military drills on the Korean Peninsula – and promise to halt NATO exercises in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Another worry is that Mr. Trump might waver on sanctions on Russia, or formally or informally agree to recognize Russia’s claim to Crimea.
“That’s an interesting question,” Mr. Trump said on Thursday when he was asked whether he might recognize the annexation. He went on to blame his predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama, for “allowing” Mr. Putin to seize Crimea. Mr. Trump also pointed out that Russia had since built substantive infrastructure connecting the peninsula to the Russian mainland.
“What will happen with Crimea from this point on? That, I can’t tell you,” he said. “But I’m not happy about Crimea.”
An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect estimate that said that Canada’s increased contribution targets would raise its military spending to almost 2.1 per cent of the country’s projected GDP in 2024.