July 22, 2018
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Trump scolds allies, demands more spending

Geert Vanden Wijngaert | AP
Geert Vanden Wijngaert | AP
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a dinner of leaders at the Art and History Museum at the Park Cinquantenaire in Brussels on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. NATO leaders gathered in Brussels Wednesday for a two-day summit to discuss Russia, Iraq and their mission in Afghanistan.
Michael Birnbaum and Seung Min Kim, The Washington Post

BRUSSELS — President Donald Trump ripped into NATO allies Wednesday, slamming Germany for its dependence on Russian energy and demanding that nations double their military spending commitments.

European diplomats have been worried about continued U.S. support for NATO. But even as Trump hit allies, he also signed on to efforts to strengthen the alliance against the Kremlin and other rivals, as well as a statement that the alliance does not accept Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

On spending, Trump insisted in a closed-door meeting of NATO leaders that the alliance increase its defense targets to 4 percent of each country’s gross domestic product — more than what the United States channels toward its military. It was not clear whether he was serious about a new standard or whether he was using the number as a negotiating tactic to edge overall spending higher and get European nations to pay more.

The push came hours after Trump bashed Germany for “being captive to Russia” because it imports much of its natural gas from there. That tirade, over breakfast with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, was rare in its bitterness.

“We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against,” Trump said, referring to European purchases of Russian natural gas.

Despite the contentiousness, Trump agreed to a 23-page declaration that Stoltenberg said would guide a more robust NATO defense for years to come. Other NATO leaders welcomed the decision, even as they said Trump’s divisive approach to his allies weakened the alliance.

Stoltenberg sought to project unity at the conclusion of the first of two days of meetings in Brussels.

“We do have disagreements, but most importantly, we have decisions that are pushing this alliance forward and making us stronger,” Stoltenberg said. “At the end of the day, we all agree that North America and Europe are safer together.”

NATO leaders are still concerned that Trump will make concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet on Monday in Helsinki.

Trump has complained bitterly about Europe’s lagging defense spending, saying that NATO nations are taking advantage of U.S. military largesse at the same time they are offering unfair trade terms to U.S. businesses.

Only eight of 29 NATO countries are on track to meet pledges of spending 2 percent of their GDPs on defense this year. Washington spent 3.6 percent last year. When he has talked about it in recent days, Trump has rounded up to 4 percent. And after Wednesday’s meeting, he tweeted with a demand for countries to meet the current 2 percent target.

“President Trump wants to see our allies share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Several NATO experts dismissed the seriousness of the 4 percent proposal.

“No country in the world can meet that,” said Bobo Lo, a Russia scholar who attended the summit. “He’s asking for something outrageous, not in the hope of getting it, but in getting to 2 percent or more.”

An official present when Trump made the demand said that “the room was aghast,” even though Trump was actually more cordial in private than in his public remarks. The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private proceedings.

A favorite target of Trump’s ire has been Germany, which has not met its NATO spending commitments and has granted permits for a second natural gas pipeline to Russia. Germany and other European NATO partners argue, however, that they have boosted their contributions to the military alliance and plan to kick in more in coming years. Germany’s leadership has said the pipeline is a private business decision, and it has been reluctant to interfere.

The accusation of Russian influence may have been particularly biting for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist-controlled East Germany.

“I myself experienced that a part of Germany that was controlled by the Soviet Union, and I am very happy today that we are united in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany,” Merkel told reporters as she entered NATO headquarters. “We decide our own policies and make our own decisions.”

Inside the closed-door meeting, she went further in her pushback, according to two officials who were present. In firm, unemotional language, Merkel told the other 28 leaders how Putin once served as a KGB officer and spy in her own country, making clear that she had little tolerance for being told her nation was controlled by the Kremlin.

Trump traveled to Europe saying that next week’s summit with Putin may be the easiest part of his week of diplomacy — an unusual assertion, challenging the notion that NATO should project a strong and united front against a strategic rival.

Trump has preferred to take aim at allies.

Even Stoltenberg — a mild-mannered former Norwegian prime minister who has cultivated a positive relationship with the president — appeared reduced to spluttering as Trump cut him off after he started to explain that allies traded with Russia even during the Cold War. Earlier in the exchange, Trump demanded credit from Stoltenberg for forcing an increase of NATO defense budgets.

“We’re supposed to protect Germany, but they’re getting their energy from Russia,” Trump said, as aides on both the U.S. and NATO side of a long table shifted in their seats. Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, grimaced. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison looked up at the ceiling. “So explain that,” Trump said. “And it can’t be explained, and you know that.”

Trump’s criticism set off immediate anxiety in Germany. Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung headlined its story: “It is not only bad, it is catastrophic.” Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 1 broadcaster — a reliable proxy for Kremlin views — blasted the remarks as well.

Germany’s energy relationship with Russia has long frustrated Washington and Eastern Europe, who fear that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bypass the Baltic nations and Poland, could be used to cut them off from crucial energy supplies. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is a top executive at the Russian-government-controlled company that runs the pipeline.

Trump has promoted exports of U.S. natural gas to Europe as an alternative to Russia as a supply source, although U.S. gas is far more expensive because of shipping costs.

The defense decisions made Wednesday were the result of months of careful negotiation, seemingly separate from Trump’s improvisatory policymaking.

NATO leaders unveiled two new military headquarters: one that would help secure the Atlantic Ocean in times of conflict and the other to speed military movement across Europe. They bolstered NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and expanded efforts to fight terrorism. And they reconfirmed their tough line on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as well as their pledge to continue pressing the Kremlin through sanctions and diplomacy to return it to Ukraine. Officials from the NATO countries that border Russia embraced the outcome.

“All the decisions contain everything we were wishing for,” said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics. “It shows that there is a genuine wish to have practical cooperation.”

Trump will have more NATO meetings on Thursday. Following that, he will travel to England to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May, then spend the weekend at one of his private golf clubs in Scotland. Finally, he will head to Helsinki for a summit with Putin.

Washington Post writers Josh Dawsey, John Hudson, Philip Rucker and Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.

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