Trump pulls U-Turn on NATO, claiming credit for stronger pact

Bloomberg London | Updated on December 04, 2019

US President Donald Trump   -  AFP

From the start of his presidency Donald Trump has been a vocal critic of NATO, especially the unfair burden he says the US has borne for Europes defense. On Tuesday he became its surprise champion.

The US president picked a public fight with Emmanuel Macron over what he called the French President’s dangerous and nasty demands for NATO reform. The two had a tense exchange in London in front of reporters, disagreeing over Turkeys role in the alliance and whether Islamic State is really defeated.

The spat reflected new domestic and political calculations for Trump, laboring under the threat of impeachment back home and seeking to protect the proliferation of his brand of conservative nationalism abroad.

Trump once questioned whether the US should remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and his interactions with allies have been marked by badgering them for their relatively low military spending. But on Tuesday, he celebrated the alliance while crediting himself for strengthening it, setting up a plausible claim that NATOs rising defense budgets validate Trumps unorthodox approach to foreign policy ahead of his 2020 re-election bid.

What I’m liking about NATO is that a lot of countries have stepped up, I think, really, at my behest, Trump said Tuesday in a meeting with Macron on the sidelines of NATOs annual summit. The alliance is becoming different than it was, much bigger than it was and much stronger than it was.

Trump may yet backtrack when the formal summit opens on Wednesday in the English countryside. He expressed such severe scepticism of the alliance at the 2018 summit that NATO leaders called an emergency session out of concern the US might bolt.

Although defence spending by Americas NATO allies began to rise before Trump entered the White House in response to Russia’s 2014 aggression in Ukraine, other leaders have been happy to credit Trumps relentless focus on burden-sharing.

According to NATO data, alliance members other than the US have increased their defence spending by about $130 billion from 2016 to 2020. The US under Trump has also accelerated new commitments of US troops and hardware to Europe, after years of withdrawals, despite the presidents often hostile rhetoric.

Pointing to success

He can point at a success, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Tuesday of Trump’s push for higher defence spending. Speaking at NATO Engages, a conference on the margins of the leaders meeting on Tuesday, Rutte added: He’s right there, we cannot have the US share all the burden.

Making that case is particularly crucial as the House impeachment inquiry grinds on at home. The White House is eager to portray the president as hard at work, in contrast with Capitol Hill Democrats that Trump says are distracted by what will ultimately be a futile effort to remove him from office.

In more than two hours of remarks to reporters in London on Tuesday, Trump also emphasized his work on trade, describing China as more eager than him for a deal and adding a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that appeared intended to put pressure on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, to hold a vote on Trumps signature re-write of Nafta.

Trumps decision to avoid upsetting NATOs apple cart for a third consecutive summit also could be an effort to assist UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Trump friend who faces a national referendum on his leadership just days after the summit concludes.

Trump also now regards NATO as potentially useful in his broader bid to counter Chinas economic and strategic influence.

China for the first time will be on the formal agenda at the summit, with the US warning against countries becoming dependent on Chinese infrastructure and credit. The construction of 5G networks in NATO countries by Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies Co, opposed by the US, will be up for discussion.

The French at the very least are wary of taking a strong stance on China within the parameters of NATO. While China might be included in language in NATO statements, its not an operational issue for the military alliance, one official said.

Lifting spirits

Trumps relatively amiable tone appeared to lift spirits going into a summit that many Europeans had feared could descend into a bitter show of disunion.

We need to talk about NATOs future and our common strategic interests but Im going into the meeting relatively optimistically, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after a side meeting with Macron, Johnson and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss Syria.

But even as Trump sought to temper his language, some old tendencies bled through. When asked by reporters if the US would come to the defence of NATO members who he had described as delinquent on defence spending, Trump hinted that is considering trade tariffs on imports from countries like Germany that lag the alliances goal of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on their militaries.

“I’m going to be discussing that today,” Trump said. “Its a very interesting question, isn’t it?”

Published on December 04, 2019

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