Ahead of today’s Nato summit, US president Donald Trump has reiterated that members are not contributing enough to the alliance’s budget:
US president arrives in London with issue of defence spending still on agenda Nato members expected to confirm a reduction in US’s contribution to its budget
US president Donald Trump arrived in London last night for a Nato summit, amid concerns about his country’s commitment to the defence alliance that is marking its 70th anniversary.
Speaking as he left Washington with his wife, Melania, Mr Trump reiterated his complaints that the US is contributing too much in defence spending compared with its fellow Nato members.
“It has not been a fair situation for us because we pay far too much, as you know,” he said, describing other members as “delinquent”.
This week’s leaders’ meeting, which opens today, comes at a challenging time in the history of the transatlantic alliance, which was founded in the years following the second World War as a bulwark against Soviet aggression.
Mr Trump has long criticised the international body, previously describing Nato as “obsolete”.
While his calls for European members to contribute more echoes the sentiment of previous presidents, including Barack Obama, his suspicion of multilateral organisations such as Nato is unprecedented for a US commander-in-chief.
Mr Trump has been a disruptive presence at previous Nato meetings. In Brussels in June 2018, the US president threatened to pull the US out of the alliance unless Europe paid more, singling out Germany in particular for criticism.
Mr Trump’s unpredictable behaviour is perhaps one reason why this week’s meeting is shorter than usual, centred on a dinner at Buckingham Palace this evening, followed by the main session at the Grove hotel in Watford tomorrow.
In an effort to appease the US president, Nato members are expected to confirm a reduction in the US’s contribution to the organisation’s $2.5 billion operating budget – the cost of running Nato’s headquarters, staff and other expenses – with some European members, Canada and Turkey paying more, despite objections from France. As a result, the US contribution will fall to 16 per cent, in line with Germany.
Nonetheless, the question of how much Nato members
spend on their military is likely to preoccupy minds.
Only a handful of the 29 members meet or exceed the target of spending 2 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) on defence.
On Friday, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg announced that European members and Canada had increased their defence spending by 4.6 per cent in real terms in 2019. “This is unprecedented progress and it is making Nato stronger,” he said.
The White House has already seized on indications that allies are upping their contributions, suggesting that it is a result of Mr Trump’s efforts.
Speaking to reporters ahead of Mr Trump’s departure for London, a senior White House official noted that allies have added more than $100 billion in new spending since Mr Trump has taken office. “This is tremendous progress, and I think it is due to the president’s diplomatic work,” he said.
Mr Trump picked up on this point as he departed the White House yesterday, saying that Mr Stoltenberg had told him he was responsible for securing the extra funding “from other countries that we protect – they weren’t paying”.
Mr Trump has a series of bilateral meetings on his agenda, including one-to-ones with German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emanuel Macron and Mr Stoltenberg. With Britain due to go to the polls next week in a general election, no bilateral meeting has been scheduled between Mr Trump and British prime minister Boris Johnson. However, the two men spoke by phone on Saturday following the terrorist attack in London, with the White House saying that they “look forward to meeting with one another” at the Nato leaders’ meeting.
While Mr Trump is a strong supporter of his British counterpart, Mr Johnson tactfully said in an interview that it would be “best” if Mr Trump did not get involved in Britain’s general election.
These days, the bar for success at a Nato summit is very low. The last gathering, in Brussels last year, ended in farce when Donald Trump mused out loud about pulling the United States out of the transatlantic alliance, berated fellow leaders for spending too little on defence and then walked out in the middle of a statement by German chancellor Angela Merkel. The two-day meeting that begins in London today – officially not a summit but a celebration to mark Nato’s 70th birthday – has been choreographed to minimise the potential for such awkward moments. The time allocated to leaders’ discussions has been kept short, and officials have been playing down expectations.
That’s just as well. The alliance is riven by internal tensions, its members openly at odds over how it operates and what it should stand for. In a call last month for greater EU defence co-operation, French president Emmanuel Macron described Nato as “brain dead” and openly questioned whether article 5 – the mutual defence clause – could actually be relied on. Macron’s criticism was focused on Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, and Turkey’s subsequent military invasion in the region. But Macron’s comments rattled Poland and the Baltic states, left Merkel exasperated and prompted a schoolyard insult from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wondered whether it was Macron who was brain-dead.
Disharmony within Nato is nothing new. Washington has long complained of Europeans’ comparatively low spending on defence. Members’ strategic priorities have often diverged. Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the alliance’s military command structure in 1966 and it rejoined only in 2009. And the alliance has been making progress in some areas, notably counterterrorism and cybersecurity.
But the current splits are serious because they go to the heart of Nato’s role at a time when the strategic map of the world is changing rapidly. The Trump administration sees the alliance as a bulwark against China’s growing influence. In eastern and central Europe, it is a vital deterrent against Russian aggression, yet in Macron’s view its role is not to contain China or even Russia but to lead the fight against international terrorism.
The biggest internal threat the alliance faces comes not from the US but from Turkey, whose actions in Syria had the effect of undermining a military campaign (against Islamic State) that Nato states were actively involved in. Erdogan is now looking for Nato to classify as terrorists the Kurdish militias who defeated Isis on the battlefield alongside western allies. Meanwhile, he provokes his allies by testing a Nato non-compatible air defence system he recently bought from Russia. This week’s gathering would do well to remind Erdogan that solidarity goes both ways.
Donald Trump: disruptive presence at previous Nato meetings