Global Politics

Ahead of meeting with NATO, leaders question Trump's intentions

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) shakes hands with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) shakes hands with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a NATO foreign ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels.

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Yves Herman/Reuters

Candidate Donald Trump called NATO “obsolete,” demanded allies step up their defense spending and threatened to back out of the alliance.

President Trump has since walked back his remarks. He’s meeting with NATO leaders for the first time in Brussels on Thursday, and some member countries are still bracing for another unexpected pivot from a man who’s become known for his impulsive comments and decision-making.

The World sat down with Ivo Daalder, former US Ambassador to NATO (2009-2013), for his take on what to expect.

What President Trump wants from NATO

Trump wants increased defense spending from what he views as freeloading NATO countries and a greater commitment to fighting terrorism.

His call for allies to do more isn’t exactly unique, Daalder says.

“Every president comes to Europe and says ‘unless there is a real willingness to start paying for defense, our ability to convince the American public to continue the support of NATO is going to be undermined, or at least become harder,” he says. 

Daalder says Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and other NATO leaders are going to point to a commitment they made in 2014 — a requirement that all NATO countries put 2 percent of their GDP into NATO defense spending by the year 2024 — as proof that they’re working towards that goal.

What NATO leaders are expecting from Trump

First, Daalder says, they want Trump’s guarantee that he supports Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty — the unconditional guarantee that all NATO countries will come to the aid of any ally that faces an armed attack.

Secondly, NATO leaders want Trump to acknowledge that Russia presents the greatest challenge to the security of the alliance. “This is a finding that US military shares — the chairman [of] the Joint Chiefs of Staff called Russia the only existential threat to the States,” says Daalder. “And the question is, does the president agree with that, because most Europeans certainly do.”

But based on his previous comments, Daalder says, “I think they're a little uncertain, to be frank. They will be looking to him to make the case for why NATO matters.”

What demands from President Trump are NATO leaders unwilling to meet?

“If he demands, as he has in the past, payments by the Europeans to the United States, the answer is going to be a flat-out 'no,'” says Daalder. “That’s not how NATO works.”

NATO is not a financial transaction, where countries pay the US to defend them, he says. The US does spend more on its military commitment to NATO, but beyond the requirement to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, each country decides for itself how much it is willing to spend for security.

Have revelations that President Trump shared classified intelligence with Russia hurt trust with NATO countries?

Daalder says the majority of intelligence shared with NATO allies comes from the US, which dominates the military command structure. So that's not the NATO countries’ biggest concern at this stage.

“I think if the president comes to the meeting — as I expect he will — fully committed to NATO,  making clear that the Americans will stand shoulder to shoulder with Europeans to deal with the threats we face, the kind of confidence and trust that is the basis of the alliance can be restored,” says Daalder. 

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