U.S. President Donald Trump shocked allies at a fraught NATO summit on Wednesday by suddenly demanding that members double their defense spending commitments.
Trump’s surprise demand came after he clashed with Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling Germany a “captive” of Russia because of its gas links and singling out Berlin for failing to pay its way.
The summit in Brussels is shaping up as the alliance’s most difficult in years, against a backdrop of deepening transatlantic tensions in fields ranging from trade to energy and defense. NATO allies agreed at their Wales summit in 2014 to try to spend two percent of GDP on defense within 10 years, but the White House said Trump suggested that was not enough.
“During the president’s remarks today at the NATO summit he suggested that countries not only meet their commitment of two percent of their GDP on defense spending, but that they increase it to four percent,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. “The president raised this same issue when he was at NATO last year. President Trump wants to see our allies share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations.”
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev confirmed that Trump had made the demand and asked what it meant for the future of the alliance that has been the bedrock of European security for 70 years. “NATO is not a stock exchange where you can buy security. NATO is an alliance of sovereign countries united by strategic targets and common values,” he told reporters.
All 29 NATO leaders including Trump backed a joint statement committing themselves to greater “burden sharing” and to the alliance’s founding commitment that an attack on one member is an attack on them all—with no mention of the four percent.
Trump arrived on the back of a barrage of criticism of Europe on issues ranging from trade to energy and above all his claims that the continent freeloads on the back of America for its defense. He then set the tone for the day with a blistering attack on key ally Germany at a breakfast meeting with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
“Germany is a captive of Russia because it is getting so much of its energy from Russia,” Trump said, taking particular aim at the proposed Nord Stream II gas pipeline, which he has previously criticized. “Everybody’s talking about it all over the world, they’re saying we’re paying you billions of dollars to protect you but you’re paying billions of dollars to Russia.”
Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, shot back that she knew what it meant to be under Kremlin domination and Germany had the right to make its own policy choices. “I myself have also experienced a part of Germany being controlled by the Soviet Union,” she said. “I am very glad that we are united today in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany and that we can therefore also make our own independent policies and make our own independent decisions.”
The pair later met for a one-on-one meeting and while Trump insisted they had a “very, very good relationship,” their frosty body language suggested otherwise. Merkel said she welcomed the chance to have an “exchange of views” with Trump.
Trump has long complained that European NATO members do not pay enough for their own defense, singling out Germany for particular criticism. Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, spends just 1.24 percent, compared with 3.5 percent for the U.S.
Stoltenberg acknowledged that Trump had expressed himself in “very direct language” but insisted that away from the fiery rhetoric the allies all agree on fundamental issues: the need to boost NATO’s resilience, fight terror and share the cost of defense more equally.
NATO officials and diplomats will try to promote an image of unity at the summit in the face of growing unease about the threat from Russia, but with the row between Merkel and Trump and the new spending demand mean it may prove difficult to paper over the cracks. The mercurial tycoon said before leaving Washington that his meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday “may be the easiest” part of his European tour, which also includes a trip to Britain, where the government is in crisis over Brexit.
Trump ramped up his rhetoric ahead of the talks, explicitly linking NATO with the transatlantic trade row by saying the E.U. shut out U.S. business while expecting America to defend it.
E.U. President Donald Tusk stepped up to the fight with his own salvo against Trump on Tuesday, telling him to “appreciate your allies” and reminding him Washington that Europe had come to its aid following the 9/11 attacks.
European diplomats fear a repeat of last month’s divisive G7 in Canada, when Trump clashed with his Western allies before meeting North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un at a summit and praising him as “very talented.”