- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2017

Europe’s leading powers responded with alarm and anger Monday to President-elect Donald Trump’s comments published over the weekend that NATO is obsolete and that NATO’s European members are failing to pay their fair share to the alliance’s budget.

Mr. Trump also attacked as “catastrophic” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door immigration policies, suggesting they have left her nation vulnerable to terrorism. He praised Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and criticized the EU as a vehicle for Berlin to dominate the continent. At one point, Mr. Trump said he was unsure whether Ms. Merkel or Russian President Vladimir Putin was more trustworthy as a leader.

The interview, which also reprised many of Mr. Trump’s comments on trade and the need to shake up the Washington status quo, was the latest example of the Republican president-elect’s ability to shake up long-standing U.S. relationships — even with his inauguration four days away.

Russian officials quickly praised Mr. Trump’s remarks, which the president-elect made in an interview with two European newspapers published Sunday. But Ms. Merkel and French President Francois Hollande showed their frustration to reporters, asserting that the EU does not need Washington’s support or advice to succeed.

“We Europeans have our destiny in our own hands,” Ms. Merkel told reporters in Berlin, arguing that the vast majority of Syrians taken in by Germany in recent years were not terrorists but refugees fleeing their country’s brutal civil war.

Mr. Hollande went further in Paris, asserting that Europe “does not need outside advice to tell it what to do.”

The French president made the comments during a ceremony Monday to present the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award, to outgoing U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley. “Europe will be ready to pursue trans-Atlantic cooperation,” he said. “But it will be based on its interests and values.”

Manuel Valls, Mr. Hollande’s former prime minister running for the Socialist nomination to replace him in the French presidential vote this spring, called Mr. Trump’s remarks a “declaration of war on Europe.”

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was also openly critical of Mr. Trump’s comments. “The interview statements of the American president-elect … caused, indeed, here in Brussels astonishment and agitation,” Mr. Steinmeier said as he went from a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to talks with his EU counterparts.

Even Obama administration officials questioned the wisdom of some of Mr. Trump’s comments. Secretary of State John F. Kerry told CNN that Mr. Trump’s comments about Germany’s domestic immigration policies were inappropriate, even though Ms. Merkel has acknowledged poor implementation of her initial welcome to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other hot spots.

The reaction was more muted from NATO’s Mr. Stoltenberg. A spokeswoman for the secretary general said only that he was “absolutely confident” in Mr. Trump’s commitment to NATO, despite Mr. Trump’s frequent questioning of the alliance’s overall mission and his expressed desire for better relations with Moscow.

“I said a long time ago that NATO had problems,” the president-elect told The Times of London and the German newspaper Bild in a wide-ranging talk at Trump Tower. “No. 1, it was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago,” he said. “No. 2, the countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to pay.”

Mr. Trump added that NATO remains important to him, but he appears to be taking a notably harder stance toward the alliance than his nominees for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and secretary of defense, retired Gen. James N. Mattis, both of whom strongly praised the alliance during their Senate confirmation hearings last week.

“If one compares the positions of the designated president and the future foreign and defense ministers, then one can’t discern a common foreign policy line among the new U.S. government,” Mr. Steinmeier said.

Merkel and Trump

On a separate front, Mr. Trump criticized Ms. Merkel’s policy of accepting Syrian war refugees and other undocumented immigrants in 2015.

While he claimed to have “great respect” for the German chancellor, Mr. Trump said: “I think she made one very catastrophic mistake, and that was taking all of these illegals, you know, taking all of the people from wherever they come from.”

Despite voicing frustration, Ms. Merkel was quoted as saying she will keep an open mind about Germany’s relations with the Trump administration. “When he is in office, and at the moment that’s not the case, we will work with the new American government and see what kind of agreements we can reach,” she said.

Stepping into another European controversy, Mr. Trump praised Britain’s vote to leave the EU, a move President Obama had publicly opposed. “Other countries will leave” the bloc, he said, predicting an exodus driven by fears of unchecked immigration and the need to preserve national identity.

The Trump interview also delved into the president-elect’s feud with the U.S. intelligence services over the extent of suspected Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Mr. Trump said he expected relations to improve when his CIA director nominee, Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, is confirmed, but he also clearly signaled that he hoped for a better relationship with the Kremlin.

He suggested broadly that he wants to push for unilateral deals with Mr. Putin, outlining a possible trade-off in which the U.S. would lift economic sanctions against Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in exchange for a deal to cut Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

“Let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia,” Mr. Trump said. “For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it.

Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions,” he said. “But I think something can happen that a lot of people are going to benefit.”

At the same time, Mr. Trump called Russia’s military intervention in Syria “a very rough thing.” He noted the “terrible humanitarian situation” in the city of Aleppo, where U.S. officials have accused Russian forces of carrying out airstrikes that hit hospitals and killed civilians.

The Kremlin, however, appeared to welcome Mr. Trump’s comments, specifically his remarks about NATO.

NATO is truly a relic of the past,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s TASS news agency on Monday.

“We agree with this, and we have long been expressing our views on [NATO],” Mr. Peskov said. “As NATO is tuned to confrontation and its entire structure is dedicated to the ideals of confrontation, of course, it can hardly be called a modern structure that meets the ideas of stability, sustainable development and security.”

Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who was on a visit to Ukraine on Monday, called on the incoming Trump administration not to abandon the sanctions regime that Mr. Obama and Washington’s allies in Western Europe erected against Russia following the annexation of Crimea.

Mr. Biden, who spoke at a news conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, did not mention Mr. Trump by name but said the “international community must continue to stand as one against Russian coercion and aggression.”

Mr. Poroshenko also refrained from mentioning the U.S. president-elect but appealed directly for the preservation of the Western sanctions amid continuing clashes with Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

“These sanctions must remain until the full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, including Crimea,” Mr. Poroshenko said.

“Ukraine realizes that it is not Moscow’s only enemy — all those who propound democratic values are Moscow’s enemies,” he added.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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