Trump Says NATO Accepted His Demands, Declares It No Longer Obsolete

WASHINGTON – Although candidate Donald Trump threatened to “dissolve” NATO if member nations didn’t pay up, President Trump on Wednesday praised the group as a “great alliance” – thanks, he suggested, to changes made because of his demands.

Appearing beside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a White House news conference, Trump said that in addition to getting nations to increase their spending, he also had made the 28-nation alliance start paying attention to terrorism. “I said it was obsolete,” Trump said Wednesday. “It’s no longer obsolete.”

Just a year ago, at a campaign rally in Wisconsin, Trump promised he would tell NATO’s other member nations: “Fellas, you haven’t paid for years. Give us the money or get the hell out. Get out.”

That sentiment has persisted into his presidency. During a visit to the White House last month from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump raised the issue with her about Germany’s NATO commitments. He tweeted the following day: “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

On Wednesday, Trump chided Stoltenberg regarding back payments that other countries supposedly still owe.

“I did ask about all the money that hasn’t been paid over the years ― will that money be coming back? We’ll be talking about that,” Trump said.

But it’s not clear whether the president fully understands how NATO is structured.

Each member state helps pay for the organization’s bureaucratic costs, but those payments are minuscule. Far more significant is the agreement that an attack on one country is considered an attack on all of their combined militaries.

Most NATO countries cut back on military spending following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, as did the United States. In 2014, following Russian aggression in Ukraine and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group on the border of member nation Turkey, NATO members agreed to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of their gross domestic product by 2024.

Neither the United States nor NATO itself acts as a central bank for the alliance, collecting dues or allocating payments. Rather, each nation raises money from its own citizens to spend on defense. No country “owes” the United States, or NATO, anything for past budgetary choices.

As for focusing on terrorism, the first and only time NATO invoked the common defense element of its charter was after al Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. NATO forces subsequently attacked al Qaeda and its sponsors, the Taliban, in Afghanistan.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has said he would like to see NATO member nations’ plans to reach that 2 percent target by the end of this year. Stoltenberg says he has made it his top priority to get member nations to increase their military spending.

“For the first time of the many, many years of decline in defense spending, we now see an increase in defense spending across Europe and Canada. So they have started to move in the right direction,” Stoltenberg said Wednesday, adding that next year, eight of the 28 nations would be spending 2 percent, up from five last year.

The United States, in contrast, has been spending closer to twice that target percentage ― 3.6 percent in 2015 ― on defense, although that total includes spending on Navy, Air Force and troop deployments in the Pacific and other parts of the world.

Whether those costs ― which are difficult to parse, as the defense budget is not structured geographically ― can reasonably be allocated as NATO-related is debatable. Some analysts argue that all U.S. defense spending can be thought of as beneficial to NATO.

“Even U.S. Pacific forces contribute to NATO’s security by deterring conflict and ensuring free flow of trade,” said Katherine Blakely, a research fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Even if other NATO member nations weren’t involved in a conflict, the economy of NATO states would take a huge hit if there was a major conflict in the Asia-Pacific [region].”

During Trump’s campaign, he frequently bashed NATO and accused other member nations of taking advantage of the United States. He regularly called the organization “obsolete.”

“It’s obsolete. We spend too much money. We’re not getting the benefits that we should be getting for the money,” Trump told Fox News in April 2016.

At the Wisconsin rally that same month, Trump also said: “Maybe NATO will dissolve and that’s OK. It’s not the worst thing in the world.”

“We have countries within NATO that are taking advantage of us. With me, I believe they’re going to pay,” he told NBC News in July 2016.

Trump’s comments have made European allies uneasy, particularly when combined with his strong and habitual praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

To assuage those allies, others in Trump’s administration have affirmed the United States’ commitment to the seven-decades-old alliance in visits to Europe. Trump himself is expected to attend a NATO summit in Brussels next month in what is to be the first foreign trip of his presidency.

CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS. President Donald Trump and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg hold a joint news conference in the East Room at the White House, April 12, 2017.

NATO head: Trump has been ‘very consistent’ in support

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says President Trump has been "very consistent" in his support of NATO, even though Trump repeatedly called it an “obsolete” organization on the campaign trail. 

“For me, the important thing is that [Trump] has been very consistent when it comes to NATO in all my interactions and conversations with him,” Stoltenberg told CNN’s “New Day" on Thursday morning.

Trump reversed his position on NATO during a joint press conference with Stoltenberg on Wednesday.

“I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete,” he said.

Stoltenberg dismissed this reversal and said Trump expressed his support for NATO after Election Day in November.

“I phoned him just after he was elected. Then he expressed strong support to NATO. I also talked to him earlier this year and now met him yesterday in the White House and it has been a very consistent message from him, but also from his security team,” Stoltenberg said.

He brushed off the accusation that NATO was ever “obsolete,” saying it “has always been relevant” because it is constantly morphing in order to best maintain peace and stability in Europe.

“NATO is the most successful alliance in history because we have been able to change when the world is changing. So NATO is constantly changing. Now we are stepping up our efforts to fight international terrorism,” Stoltenberg said.

Trump suggested Wednesday that NATO’s willingness to combat terrorism changed his views, saying it is no longer obsolete.

“I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change. And now they do fight terrorism,” Trump said at the press conference.

Stoltenberg said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster have “all expressed strong support of NATO,” while urging him to bring NATO into the global fight against terrorism.

“At the same time [Trump’s security team has] underlined the importance of NATO increasing its efforts to fight international terrorism. I am working on that. And there is also an importance, a burden sharing. We have turned the corner and European defense spending has now started to increase,” Stoltenberg said.

Trump reversed himself on several key campaign issues this week, in addition to NATO.

Trump told the Wall Street Journal in an interview Wednesday he will no longer label China as a currency manipulator and he now supports the Export-Import bank.

Trump’s reversal on NATO also comes amid worsening relations with Russia after the U.S. conducted an airstrike in Syria, in retaliation for Syrian leader Bashar Assad's chemical weapons attack on his own people.

How Donald Trump came to love NATO

President Donald Trump emphatically embraced NATO Wednesday in a reversal of his campaign trail rhetoric lambasting the organization.

"I said it's obsolete," Trump said, referencing a favorite refrain. "Now it's no longer obsolete." He was speaking to reporters at the White House alongside NATO's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, after giving him a warm welcome and praising the organization as "the bulwark of international peace and security."

Trump's newfound enthusiasm for NATO brings him into alignment with a long-standing bipartisan consensus in Washington, exemplified by House Speaker Paul Ryan's announcement earlier Wednesday that he would lead a delegation of both Republicans and Democrats to visit key NATO members.

But Trump's about-face has more to do with those closest to him and the way Stoltenberg has focused on shared priorities with the new President, as well as the deterioration of another key relationship: that of the US and Russia. Here are four factors that have driven Trump's dramatic 180 on NATO -- for now.

Trump has appointed several pro-NATO figures to senior positions and appears willing to heed their advice. Secretary of Defense James Mattis once held one of the senior-most military commands in the alliance and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the US commitment to the collective defense of fellow alliance members "inviolable" during his confirmation hearings.

Lt. Gen. HR McMaster, Trump's new national security adviser, is similarly thought to embrace the alliance.

And it's fitting that Trump made his comments alongside Stoltenberg following an hour-long meeting in the Oval Office.

Stoltenberg has long professed NATO priorities similar to Trumps, in particular boosting defense spending among the member states and fighting terrorism.

During the presidential race, Trump even went so far as to suggest that America's commitment to the alliance's principle of collective defense of other member states was contingent on whether the country being attacked met its commitment to defense spending. But on Wednesday, a senior White House official called Trump's current commitment to collective defense "ironclad." Nevertheless, Stoltenberg has echoed Trump in calling for increased burden-sharing, labeling it his "top priority."

On Wednesday, Trump specifically cited NATO's initiatives in fighting terrorism as reason for his newfound respect for the organization.

"They made a change, and now they do fight terrorism," Trump said, which was a key demand he as a presidential candidate.

While NATO officials have long stressed that the organization has been combating terrorism for over a decade -- including by fighting and training local troops in Afghanistan -- the alliance has in recent months taken on an even bigger role in counterterrorism.

In February, NATO began training Iraqi troops in country, helping build their capacity for the battle against ISIS. A NATO official told CNN that that effort has "no end date." NATO has also since October flown AWACS surveillance planes in support of the counter-ISIS fight.

"NATO is involved in supporting the fight against terrorism in Syria and Iraq," Stoltenberg told CNN"s Wolf Blitzer following his White House visit. "We are present in the wider Middle East region helping partners like Jordan (and) Tunisia to stabilize their countries and to fight terrorism."

But, he added, "I believe NATO can do more."

Defense Spending
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly slammed the members -- 23 out of 28 -- that are not meeting the alliance's recommended defense spending levels of 2% of GDP.

But there has been progress on that front, too.

NATO announced that the its members had boosted its overall non-US defense spending by 3.8%, or $10 billion, in 2016. Romania, Latvia and Lithuania -- all concerned about the ambitions of nearby Russia -- have all recently announced that they will meet the target next year.

Some experts think that Russia's military activities have been a bigger driver of defense spending increases than Trump's pressure, particularly among the alliance's eastern members.

Stoltenberg, however, expressed gratitude to Trump directly Wednesday for his emphasis on boosting allied defense spending.

"I thank you for your attention to this issue," he said. "We are already seeing the effects of your strong focus on the importance on burden-sharing in the alliance."

But the momentum might not last.

"Although (Stoltenberg) also wants Europe to spend more, he's only the political leader of the alliance," Jorge Benitez, the director of NATOSource told CNN. "He can't deliver on increases the way Trump wants him to."

The leaders of Europe and Canada would need to take the hard political decisions to boost defense spending, he said. "I don't think Europeans are taking this threat seriously enough."

And then there's the deterioration of Trump's relationship with NATO's traditional adversary, Moscow.
"We may be at an all-time low," Trump said of US-Russia relations Wednesday.

Tensions have recently flared over Moscow's military backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the US accused of using chemical weapons last week. Russia then criticized the US for launching a retaliatory strike.

"(Trump) has been very firm that he is 100% committed to NATO," a senior administration official. "I think that position remains unchanged, and probably was reinforced by, again, everything that Russia is doing,"

The Russians appeared to mock Trump's new stance on the alliance, with Moscow's diplomatic mission to NATO issuing a tweet questioning when the alliance no longer became obsolete.

On Monday, Trump signed off on the Balkan country of Montenegro becoming NATO's newest member, a move that Moscow has long opposed.

"For Russia, this is something they did not want to see happen," NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, told the House Armed Services Committee last month.

On Thursday, a US-led battalion in Poland bolstering Eastern European allies in Russia's shadow, is due to be activated.

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