President Donald Trump likely crushed anxious NATO allies’ hopes for an uplifting message and full-throated endorsement of NATO’s core missions Thursday.
Instead, Trump lectured the group for failing to live up to its financial obligations and leaving it to U.S. taxpayers to shoulder the organization’s defense burden.
During a ceremony opening the new NATO headquarters here in Brussels, Trump asked for a moment of silence to honor the 22 people killed in the suicide bombing Monday in Manchester, England, then spoke of NATO members’ need to get more serious about their defense spending and focus more resources on exposing “these killers and extremists.”
“Terrorism must be stopped in its tracks or the horror you saw in Manchester and so many other places will continue forever,” Trump said. “You have thousands and thousands of people pouring into our various countries and spreading throughout, and in many cases we have no idea who they are.”
We must be tough. We must be strong. And we must be vigilant.
President Donald Trump
As he spoke, some of the world leaders standing nearby shifted their stances or crossed arms. Two began murmuring as Trump told the group to increase their contributions.
Trump’s visit with European and NATO leaders in Brussels marked the second half of his five-country tour, which already included a religious pilgrimage that took him through Saudi Arabia, Israel and Rome.
Based on a statement from the White House, European leaders had expected that Trump would commit to the core mission of the alliance established in 1949 that bonds the United States and Europe based on the principle, known as Article 5, that an attack on one member state is an attack on all. But Trump never explicitly declared that the administration would come to the defense of an attacked ally.
Unlike Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis in separate statements earlier this year, Trump never committed to Article 5.
“We just haven’t heard the words expressed by the president himself,” said Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs who’s now director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said before the trip.
But any hopes of such a speech were dashed when Trump appeared to revert to tones and themes from his campaign that raised questions about the U.S. commitment to NATO. He charged Thursday that 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should for their defense and U.S. taxpayers are unfairly having to shoulder the burden.
If all members had spent 2 percent of their GDPs on defense last year, NATO would have another $119 billion for “our collective defense,” Trump said.
In the past eight years, the United States spent more on defense than all other NATO countries combined, Trump said. If all members had spent 2 percent of their GDPs on defense last year, as they’ve committed to do as part of the alliance, NATO would have another $119 billion for “our collective defense” and for the financing of additional NATO reserves, he said.
“We must be tough,” Trump said. “We must be strong. And we must be vigilant.”
Foreign leaders never were really sure which Trump would show up. Would it be the populist, “America first” president who declared to union workers on April 4 that he was “not president of the world?” Or could it be the Trump who a week later stood with the secretary-general of NATO – an organization he’d earlier declared obsolete – and pledged to work with the decades-old alliance to clean up a messy world?
Trump did score a victory before the gathering even started: NATO put his two greatest concerns – terror and border sharing – at the top of the week’s agenda.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said leaders were set to approve a new NATO initiative by which each member would submit detailed annual reports on their progress toward increasing defense spending to support the organization.
NATO leaders also are expected to agree to formally join the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.
In an effort to make him more comfortable, NATO leaders shortened their planned meeting with Trump on Thursday to just a couple of hours to reduce the chance for embarrassing moments, according to Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brooking Institution.
While Trump has never explicitly committed to Article 5, he has taken action in defense of NATO allies. Conley noted that 150 U.S. soldiers had been sent to Poland in April to join hundreds of other allied troops as part of NATO’s international initiative to secure Europe’s borders with Russia.
“The rhetoric can get your heart beating faster,” Conley said. “No doubt about it. But you have to just focus on what is actually happening.”