President Donald Trump endorsed NATO’s bedrock collective defense clause, Article 5, in a press conference Friday.
“Absolutely, I’d be committed to Article 5,” he said Friday in response to a question from a journalist, speaking beside Romanian President Klaus Iohannis at the White House.
While this may be welcome news for NATO allies, it’s simply not enough following Trump’s diplomatic debacle in Brussels last month. “Trump gave a public tongue lashing that surprised NATO leaders and his national security team alike,” according to a Foreign Policy exclusive.
Trump had two versions of prepared remarks for the dinner, one that took a traditional tack and one prepared by the more NATO-skeptic advisors, Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. “He dumped both of them and improvised,” one source briefed on the dinner told FP.
Foreign Policy added:
“During the dinner, Trump went off-script to criticize allies again for not spending enough on defense. (The United States is one of only five members that meets NATO members’ pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense.)
Several sources briefed extensively on the dinner say he said 2 percent wasn’t enough and allies should spend 3 percent of GDP on defense, and he even threatened to cut back U.S. defense spending and have Europeans dole out “back pay” to make up for their low defense spending if they didn’t pony up quickly enough. Two sources say Trump didn’t mention Russia once during the dinner.”
“Oh, it was like a total shitshow,” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to discuss the closed-door dinner.
“The dinner was far worse than the speech,” said a former senior U.S. government official briefed on dinner. “It was a train wreck. It was awful.”
NATO headquarters declined to comment on the dinner. “This was a confidential dinner of allied leaders and we respect their confidence,” a NATO spokesperson said.
Jim Townsend, the former top Pentagon envoy to NATO during President Barack Obama’s administration, said the visit damaged Washington’s standing with its closest allies. “[Trump] has no self control,” Townsend said. “He made his point — rudely, I thought — so why not use the dinner behind closed doors to talk about anything: Russia, strategy, Afghanistan. He didn’t.”
On Friday, he reiterated claims — widely debunked — that NATO allies “owe” back pay for years past it didn’t reach its 2 percent defense spending threshold. “Do we ever go back and say how about paying the money from many many years past?” Trump said. “Now I know no president has ever asked that question. But I do,” he added. “Perhaps you should pay some or all of that money back.” (As former officials pointed out, Washington decides for itself how much it spends on NATO, and defense spending in NATO isn’t a financial transaction where allies “buy into” U.S. defense commitments.)
He also took credit for the alliance’s decision to boost defense spending. “Because of us, money is starting to pour into NATO,” Trump said.
However, and as Foreign Policy noted:
“NATO first announced a plan for all of its members over the course of the next decade to reach the 2 percent threshold in September 2014, over two years before Trump was elected. Experts and NATO officials say Russia, not Trump, prompted the move.”
In fact, the president’s hounding of allies to spend more on defense could have the opposite effect in Europe.
“The public lecturing is counterproductive,” said Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, now with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“President Trump could not have chosen a worse strategy to getting Germany to spend more on defense,” said Tomas Valasek, who served as Slovakia’s ambassador to NATO for four years up until April.
“He gets partial credit for finally saying it,” said Julie Smith, a former senior White House official during President Barack Obama’s administration now with the Center for a New American Security. “But many allies felt the right time to say it was on his first trip to NATO when all members were present. They won’t easily forget that he deliberately removed that line when he spoke in Brussels.”
“Trump’s improvised and conditional statement about NATO’s Article 5 is not how to reassure allies and certainly not how to deter Russian aggression,” said Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert at the Atlantic Council.