- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Hosting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House Tuesday, President Trump hailed what he called “tremendous progress” on his relentless push to spur other members to pay more for the defense alliance.

Mr. Trump, who had a sometimes rocky relationship with NATO in his first two years in office, took a far more upbeat tone as representatives gathered in Washington to mark the bloc’s 70th anniversary. In addition to the persistent funding shortfall, Mr. Trump has clashed at times with fellow NATO leaders on the correct approach to Russia and Iran and coordinating international missions in Syria and Afghanistan.

“Tremendous progress has been made,” Mr. Trump told reporters in an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Stoltenberg, who has been invited to address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. “When I came, it wasn’t so good, and now they’re catching up.”

In 2016, only four of the 28 NATO countries were paying at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense, a level that all members are supposed to meet by 2024. NATO officials estimated that seven countries — the U.S., the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — met that threshold in 2018.

The U.S. leads the alliance by spending an estimated 3.39% of GDP on defense. Mr. Trump has often called on members such as Germany, which spends 1.23%, to shoulder more of the burden.

“Germany honestly is not paying their fair share,” the president said. “We’re paying for a big proportion of NATO, which is basically protecting Europe. At the same time, they’re taking advantage of us on trade.”

Despite running a budget surplus, the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has balked at major increases in the country’s military. Ms. Merkel, who has a strained relationship with Mr. Trump, says Germany plans to meet only its own goal of 1.5% of GDP for defense by 2024.

The president said Tuesday that the threshold of 2% “may have to go up.” He thanked Mr. Stoltenberg “for your strong commitment to NATO … and especially your strong leadership on burden-sharing.”

Senior State Department officials insisted Tuesday that the relationship between the U.S. and NATO remains as strong as ever despite Mr. Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward the bloc and its members and his continued pressure on European governments to spend more on defense.

NATO remains strong and unified. We have a very strong foundation of shared democratic [ideals],” an official told reporters on a conference call ahead of the Trump-Stoltenberg meeting. “The U.S. commitment to NATO remains firm.”


But the fear of a public wrangle over divisive issues has crept into this week’s festivities. The alliance last fall decided against having the heads of government assemble in Washington for the commemoration and invited the alliance’s foreign ministers to gather instead.

This week’s meeting will center on Russia, officials said, and the Trump administration is expected to lead the charge for a new set of economic sanctions against the Kremlin.

Officials referred to the sanctions as the “Black Sea package” because of a November incident in which Russian forces fired on and seized Ukrainian ships traveling through the strategic Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov.

Officials also said that what they contend are Russia’s continued violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — a pact Mr. Trump scrapped this year — will be a major topic for NATO leaders over the next several days. Mr. Stoltenberg said Russia has violated the INF Treaty and that he appreciates the U.S. support in confronting that situation.

But some European allies are nervous that ending a long-standing ban on midrange “tactical” nuclear weapons will revive bitter fights of the 1980s over where the weapons will be based. The disagreements badly strained the NATO alliance.

The administration sees NATO’s broad top priority as countering Russian aggression.

“It’s a threat to the alliance and to the United States. I anticipate that all elements of the Russian threat will be discussed,” the State Department official said.

Asked by reporters whether Russia is a threat, Mr. Trump replied, “I hope it’s not going to be a security threat. I think we’ll get along with Russia.”

The high-level NATO meeting also comes at a time of increased tensions between two of its most powerful militaries: the U.S. and Turkey. The Pentagon this week said it will stop deliveries of F-35 fighter aircraft equipment to Turkey as retaliation for Ankara’s plan to buy the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

Turkey and the U.S. are also far apart of the treatment of Syrian Kurds who were critical to the defeat of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, but Ankara claims the fighters have links to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. Turkey has also maintained relations with countries that have been targets of particular U.S. ire, including Iran and Venezuela.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to meet with Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday.

Officials downplayed the idea that the rift could threaten the country’s NATO membership but stressed that the administration is ready to take further action if military cooperation between Turkey and Russia grows.

“It has been made clear to Turkey by the United States at the highest levels … that we have very serious concerns,” an official said.

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