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Trump Hands Putin a Win at First NATO Meeting

The president managed to berate allies, avoid commitments, and shove a head of government.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
trump nato

European leaders hoped President Donald Trump would explicitly endorse NATO’s bedrock collective defense clause during his visit to Brussels on Thursday, after he spent the presidential campaign suggesting it was hollow. He didn’t.

In a speech at the opening of NATO’s new headquarters, Trump slammed U.S. allies for not spending enough on defense before an uncomfortable-looking audience of fellow heads of state, and in between sparked awkward run-ins with other leaders that underscored strained U.S.-European relations since Trump took office.

He berated allies for “chronic underpayments” on defense spending in remarks that left allies, former officials, and longtime NATO experts stunned.

“This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” Trump said in a speech. “And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years,” he said yet again. (Of course, as Trump has had explained to him countless times, countries don’t pay any dues to NATO, as they do to organizations like the U.N., so it’s unclear what he is talking about.)

Currently, only five of NATO’s 28 members — the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, and Greece — meet the alliance’s benchmark of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. It’s been a thorn in the side of U.S.-NATO relations for decades, but Trump brought new urgency to the debate after questioning the value of the alliance and openly praising NATO’s arch geopolitical foe, Russia, during his presidential campaign.

Trump said he was “very direct” with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and other leaders about ponying up more on defense spending.

“We should recognize that with these chronic underpayments and growing threats, even 2 percent of GDP is insufficient to close the gaps in modernizing, readiness, and the size of forces,” he said.

In another crucial signal, Trump refused to explicitly reaffirm the value of NATO’s Article 5 collective defense clause, the linchpin of NATO’s unity and deterrence since the alliance’s foundation in 1949. That says that all NATO members will come to the aid of any member that is attacked. Trump made those remarks in front of a memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when for the only time in history NATO invoked Article 5 to help defend Trump’s hometown.

His refusal to explicitly endorse the principle may rattle U.S. allies who were already nervous that Washington won’t come to their defense in the event of an attack.

And while Trump addressed the threat of terrorism, he didn’t harp on the Russian threat to allay allies’ fears, in another swing-and-miss. Baltic countries, in particular, are worried about massing Russian military forces that could overwhelm them, and were hoping for the typical, ironclad U.S. commitment, but left disappointed. “It certainly fell short of what the Europeans were hoping to hear,” said Derek Chollet, a former senior Pentagon official now with the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “These are allies who are extremely worried about their own future. They see the Russia threat as an existential one. They live with it every day,” he told Foreign Policy.

Experts and former U.S. officials, shocked at the omissions, slammed Trump.

“Trump’s behavior at this NATO meeting in Brussels is a definitive win for Putin,” said Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert at the Atlantic Council who was at the NATO confab. “It just increases a lot of the doubts and fears and concerns our allies have had,” he told FP.

“Every US President since Truman has pledged support for Article 5–that US will defend Europe. Not so Trump today at #NATO. Major mistake,” former U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns wrote on Twitter.

Others thought if Trump continued to harp allies on defense spending, it could backfire. “It can have a blowback effect where countries say to Trump, well screw you I’m not going to go home and appear to my people that I’m knuckling under to you,” said Jim Townsend, who was the Pentagon’s top NATO envoy up until January. “That’s puny-minded. That’s not a tactic worthy of the American president,” he said.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer brushed aside criticisms, calling them “almost laughable.”

“The United States is in NATO, so obviously we support all the articles in NATO,” he told White House pool reporters.

Optics-wise, things didn’t fare much better, with passive aggressiveness out in full force. French President Emmanuel Macron went out of his way to leave Trump hanging for a handshake as he greeted the phalanx of NATO member leaders.

In another cringe-worthy moment, Trump shoved Montenegrin leader Dusko Markovic out of his way to clamber to the front of the pack to preen for a photo-op:

(Background: Montenegro poured its heart and soul into gaining NATO membership, much to the Kremlin’s displeasure, and it’s expected to gain official membership next month. Trump himself greenlighted its accession.)

After the speech and some tense run-ins with his peers, Trump and the other NATO leaders gathered for a photo op on stage, while leaders mingled and chatted with one another. No NATO leaders were seen approaching Trump to speak with him on his way out.

This article was updated to include comments from the White House press secretary and other former senior U.S. officials.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer