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Trump is using U.S. troops as a bargaining chip to raise NATO defense spending

"This is no longer sustainable for us.”
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Donald Trump dangled the threat of withdrawing U.S. troops from Europe in a series of “sharply worded” letters sent to the leaders of NATO countries demanding they increase their defense spending, according to a report published Monday in the New York Times.

Sent last month ahead of next week’s NATO summit in Brussels, the missives warn of a growing division within the alliance between the U.S. and the other members over the issue of financial contributions.


“There is growing frustration in the United States that some allies have not stepped up as promised,” Trump said in a particularly pointed letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “The United States continues to devote more resources to the defense of Europe when the continent’s economy, including Germany’s, are doing well and security challenges abound. This is no longer sustainable for us.”

Trump is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland following the Brussels summit, with European nations concerned that Trump’s growing dissatisfaction with NATO and his endless devotion to Moscow will endanger the security of the continent.

"It sends a shocking signal, in the context of where Europe and in particular its eastern edges face a Russia that isn't retreating, that isn't backing down,” Leslie Vinjamuri, the head of the U.S. and the Americas programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News.

“American's NATO partners are worried that Donald Trump is going to leave the NATO summit, rush through his U.K. visit to go golfing, and then go and make a number of promises to Putin that won't really have been discussed or worked through collaboratively with Europe,” Vinjamuri added.

Trump has long criticized NATO for failing to spend what he considers a fair amount on collective defense, claiming the Europeans have taken advantage of America’s largesse. At the G7 meeting last month, Trump blasted the alliance, saying “NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” referring to the pact he once called “the worst trade deal in the history of the world.”


Now Trump is now threatening to withdraw overseas troops if the situation doesn’t change.

“It will, however, become increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries do not share NATO’s collective security burden while American soldiers continue to sacrifice their lives overseas or come home gravely wounded,” Trump said in his letter to Merkel — ignoring the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq were American interventions, not NATO.

The U.S. currently has 35,000 active-duty troops stationed in Germany, with Washington reportedly already considering scaling down this footprint.

Trump even told Merkel Germany was to blame for the underspending of other countries: “Continued German underspending on defense undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also do not plan to meet their military spending commitments, because others see you as a role model.”

A spokesperson for Merkel told VICE News that they don’t comment in public on confidential correspondence, but added: “The federal German government is in close contact with the U.S. administration regarding questions of security policy.”

A NATO official told VICE News that since taking office in 2014, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has “emphasized the need for greater burden sharing amongst allies in line with the pledge made at Wales in September 2014.”

It is the details of this 2014 agreement that appear to be roiling Trump, as many NATO countries are not meeting the pledge to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on national defense. Only five of the 28 members are currently hitting 2 percent — the U.S., Greece, Britain, Estonia and Poland.


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However, under the agreement countries have until 2024 to reach that goal. Yet Trump wants contributions to hit 2 percent now.

Trump’s hawkish national security adviser John Bolton Sunday told “Face the Nation” that Trump "wants a strong NATO.” But when pushed further on the matter, he said it was the other members and not the U.S. that were putting the alliance at risk:

“When people talk about undermining the NATO alliance, you should look at those who are carrying out steps that make NATO less effective militarily,” Bolton said.

Cover image: British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pose for a family photo during the G7 Summit in in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 8, 2018. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)