U.S president Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to NATO Thursday after throwing the summit in Brussels into chaos.
After reportedly threatening to withdraw the U.S. from the alliance unless his defense spending demands were met, Trump held an impromptu press conference in which he claimed NATO members had increased their spending commitments to a satisfactory level. "The US were not treated fairly but now we are. I believe in NATO," he said.
Earlier, an emergency session of NATO leaders was called, throwing the previous schedule into disarray as officials scrambled to deal with Trump’s outburst.
Trump showed up 30 minutes late to a meeting with the leaders of Ukraine and Georgia to discuss Russian aggression in eastern Europe. But Trump hijacked the meeting, returning to the issue of members’ defense spending and singling out Germany’s Angela Merkel for harsh criticism.
He even reportedly said the U.S. would “go it alone” if more countries did not boost their defense spending, while Politico reported that Trump threatened “grave consequences" if allies failed to up their budgets. The president also hit out at the money spent on NATO’s new $1.5 billion headquarters.
Following the comments, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the emergency session of NATO leaders.
In a press conference after the emergency session, Trump put a positive spin on events.
"The US commitment to NATO remains very strong," Trump added, "mainly because [of] the additional money they've committed."
He continued: “This was a really fantastic two days. It was a little tough for a little while, but ultimately [the leaders] are really liking what is happening.”
Trump said the allies had agreed to spend an extra $33 billion on defense and that the organization was “much stronger than it was two days ago.”
Trump also took personal credit for the purported spending increase, saying all the NATO allies congratulated him. "Everybody in the room thanked me.”
Shortly after the press conference, French President Emmanuel Macron denied Trump’s claim that the allies had agreed to meet his demand to boost defense spending. He pointed to a communique published Wednesday by NATO: “It confirms the goal of 2 percent by 2024. That’s all.”
Macron also denied that Trump threatened to quit the alliance: “President Trump never at any moment, either in public or in private, threatened to withdraw from NATO,” he told reporters.
Before leaving the U.S. for Brussels Monday, Trump signaled his desire to upend the meeting over spending.
At a breakfast meeting with Stoltenberg Wednesday Trump slammed Germany for paying billions of dollars to Russia for natural gas but not paying enough on defense.
At a closed-door meeting later in the day to discuss “burden sharing," Trump reportedly dropped a bombshell demanding all members double their defense spending to four percent of GDP by 2024.
Trump then walked out of the room, leaving his allies reportedly stunned.
“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," Sarah Sanders told reporters. "Trump wants to see our allies share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations."
On Thursday morning Trump repeated his call in a pair of tweets:
New figures released by NATO this week show that just eight of the 29 member states have reached the two percent spending target set at a summit in Wales in 2014. However that agreement stipulated that countries had until 2024 to meet the benchmark.
The U.S. is by far the biggest spender on defense in NATO, but even it doesn’t spend four percent of GDP on defense. In 2017 it spent 3.57 percent, meaning if Trump was serious about imposing a four percent benchmark, the U.S. would have to increase its already massive military budget from $610 billion to over $680 billion.
But experts believe that Trump’s bluster is more of a negotiating tactic than a reflection of a real change in U.S. foreign policy.
“I think the four percent claim falls into the same category of his unilateral decision to halt military exercises with North Korea; he simply says things without due consideration,” John Hemmings, told VICE News. “Surely he knows that allies who have trouble spending two percent will be even less able to meet a figure twice that amount.”
Trump also known that criticizing allies for failing to match U.S. spending on defense will play well with his voters back home.
“[Trump] uses these events to speak to home audiences,” Tomas Valasek, a former ambassador of Slovakia to NATO, said. “He’s permanently campaigning, and the low defense spending does plays well with the U.S. public. What is agreed at in meeting rooms makes little difference to voter intentions.”
Cover image: Donald Trump gestures as he addresses a press conference on the second day of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels on July 12, 2018. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)