“A fantastic two days. They’re really liking what happened over the last few days.”
President Donald Trump’s description of the exchanges during the NATO summit in Brussels took many by surprise after two days of harsh exchanges over spending.
The US president first harangued leaders to spend more, then threatened he could withdraw from the alliance and “go it alone.” From the outset, alternating between tweets and statements, Mr. Trump emphasized his main goal was to stop Washington bankrolling the organization and give the United States a fairer deal. He admonished allies to increase their defense spending targets to 4% of GDP, not 2%, and tweeted that that Germany “must pay 2% immediately.”
The question of spending shaped the whole of the conference, starting from Mr. Trump’s tweet early on Tuesday that the EU was disadvantaging businesses in the US while expecting Washington to bankroll its defense. “I just want fairness for the United States,” he said.
And on Thursday, Mr. Trump's insistence on the topic at meetings dedicated to non-budgetary issues meant some attendees, Ukraine and Georgia, both potential NATO members, had to leave. NATO’s chief, Jens Stoltenberg, was forced to call an emergency meeting.
Overall, Mr Trump’s calls for members to meet their own commitments were reasonable, many felt, though not to suggest they agreed to additional funds beyond that. The president's statement to the press on Thursday that the leaders attending had agreed to spend up to €33 billion more on defense took many by surprise. Mr. Stoltenberg and other attendees hurriedly clarified that their spending plans reaffirmed current commitments rather than creating new ones.
Other leaders canceled their own press conferences, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and the British prime minister, Theresa May.
'A bull in a china shop'
Berlin was a particular target throughout the summit. At the first breakfast meeting, Mr. Trump charged that Germany was totally "captive" of Moscow, and its purchasing of Russian gas was inappropriate. The stats show Germany is not as dependent on Russia as Mr. Trump implied, however: Russian oil and gas currently make up about 20 percent of Germany's energy mix.
The attacks on Germany’s supposed dependence drew dismay from Brussels and beyond. Mr. Stoltenberg said the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a question of national policy. Russian state television, meanwhile, supportive until that point of Mr. Trump’s actions, reportedly described the US president a “bull in a china shop.”
Ms. Merkel, whose exchanges with Mr. Trump have been fraught since his election, issued an uncharacteristically swift riposte. Drawing on her upbringing in the GDR, a Soviet vassal state, she said she was happy Germany was independent now.
After that meeting, Mr. Trump told reporters that relations between the two leaders were “tremendous” and “stronger than ever.” And in his closing remarks, Mr. Trump said, “Germany has agreed to do a lot better than they were doing.” After noting that his father came from Germany, though in fact it is his grandfather, Mr. Trump reiterated he had a good relationship with the German chancellor.
For her part, Ms. Merkel called the summit “very intense.”
In a television interview, she underlined the strength of NATO and its commitment to support its members. And she outlined some of the achievements of the summit, from a commitment known as the “Four Thirties’ by 2020, as well as signing off on a new structure with a new command for the Atlantic in Virginia, and a European command for military mobility in Ulm, Germany.
But major questions remain, about the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine, both having lost territory to Russia; about the future of Crimea under Moscow and about the harder to define nature of hybrid threats and how to counter these.
Analysts later were divided on whether Trump’s remarks were a ploy to divide the allies in Brussels or showed his preference to focus on business rather than a network of allegiances. During his closing remarks, the president dryly described himself a "stable genius." But his rapid-fire mixed messages throughout the summit made it difficult to draw conclusions about his deeper commitments to the organization and its members.
Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]