U.S. President Donald Trump gestures while speaking during a news conference at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg)

Trump Gives NATO Backing After Sowing Summit Discord

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump affirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO, but only after dragging top allies -- Germany in particular -- through a chaotic two days of insults, accusations and demands for more military spending.

The U.S. president, in a news conference hastily arranged on Thursday to address reports he had privately threatened to pull out of the post-World War II alliance if countries don’t rapidly raise their defense spending, said he believes he could leave NATO without Congress’ authorization. But he said doing so would be “unnecessary” because countries had agreed to spend more.

Trump was vague on the details of any new financial commitments or timelines, and U.S. allies played down his assertions that they’ve raised spending targets above levels agreed upon in 2014.

Italy has no plans to change its defense spending as a result of the summit, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters. And French President Emmanuel Macron noted NATO members “agreed to raise spending as they agreed in 2014,” implying little had changed at the president’s urging.

Macron was referencing a commitment made at a previous summit to halt declines in defense outlays and “move toward” a goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024.

Trump insisted his divisive posture throughout the NATO meeting would not -- as some critics have suggested -- play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom the president is to meet next week. Persuading Western nations to spend more on their militaries isn’t something Russia wants, Trump said.

“Everyone’s agreed to substantially up their commitment,” he said at the news conference in Brussels. He said that allies had agreed to raise defense spending by $33 billion.

“I just want fairness for the United States,” he said.

Read More: NATO Predicts New Defense-Budget Rise in Europe as Trump Returns

Trump wouldn’t confirm that he’d threatened to pull the U.S. from the defense bloc, and other world leaders denied reports that he had suggested pulling out of the decades-old treaty. But Trump did acknowledge that he’d been more assertive about pressuring allies to increase their defense spending.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Trump has created a “new sense of urgency” in the debate over NATO members’ military budgets.

“All allies have heard President Trump’s message loud and clear,” Stoltenberg told reporters after the summit in Brussels.

Trump said the U.S. commitment to the 29-member NATO remains very strong and cited “the additional money they will be putting up” and “the level of spirit in that room” during the meetings.

In an unexpected twist, NATO leaders held an unplanned emergency session on the last day of the summit after it was upended by Trump’s attacks on allies. One NATO government official said the morning meeting Thursday was taking place against the backdrop of Trump threatening allies to “go it alone” unless they agreed to increase their defense budgets immediately.

Macron and Merkel Play Down Trump’s Spending Claims: NATO Update

While Trump claimed victory, European leaders were more reticent on their spending plans. Conte said his country has focused more on targets other than the 2 percent goal, such as increasing its participation in NATO missions.

“It isn’t just an accounting issue,” Conte said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlighted previous commitments to hike defense spending and participate in ongoing NATO missions. An announcement last year of new spending was a “comprehensive, ambitious, once-in-a-generation defense policy,” he said, and gave no indication he’d cede to Trump’s demand to add more money.

“Everyone agreed to respect the commitments they made,” Macron said. “We reaffirmed a credible budget strategy that meets our needs.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel said that in Germany “we know that we need to do more -- and that we’re already doing so. The change in trend has long since begun.”

“We’ll have to talk about to what extent we can do more on defense,” she said. “We presented the current situation. But considering the discussion among the European allies, not only the Americans, I think we need to ask ourselves consistently what more we can do.”

Merkel’s government has committed to spend the equivalent of 1.5 percent of GDP on military spending by 2024, calling it a more realistic goal for its expanding export-driven economy. The chancellor has little scope to push for more, lacking public support for robust military budgets.

Trump said he extracted a firm commitment by all NATO allies to substantially increase their defense spending to more than 2 percent of their economic output, within a “relatively short period of years.” After reaching that target, he said they’ll keep increasing it to 4 percent, a number he called the right one.

“NATO is now much stronger than it was two days ago,” Trump said.

Few had expected smooth sailing at the Brussels summit. But the vehemence of Trump’s on-camera breakfast attack on Germany on Wednesday for its backing of a second Nord Stream gas pipeline, in which he accused the country of being “captive” to Russia, came as a shock. Merkel on Wednesday gave Trump an uncharacteristically personal response, reminding him that she knew what captive means, having grown up in Soviet-controlled East Germany.

Read more: The Pipeline That Pits Trump Against Merkel and Putin

Trump wasn’t content to pressure NATO allies to raise their defense spending to 2 percent of economic output, instead proposing double that target -- budgets that would be more in-line with U.S. defense spending. Trump’s suggestion was informal and made in a closed-door session on Wednesday, but it did little to ease tensions at an already charged meeting.

He made the proposal public on Thursday, posting on Twitter: “All NATO nations must meet their 2% commitment, and that must ultimately go to 4%!"

NATO said earlier this week that its European members will spend an average 1.5 percent of economic output on defense this year, an increase from 1.46 percent of gross domestic product in 2017 that underpins a general boost in defense budgets in Europe and Canada over the past four years.

America’s NATO partners will expand military outlays by a combined 3.82 percent in 2018, bringing the cumulative rise since the start of 2015 to more than $87 billion, according to the alliance.

The NATO gathering precedes a planned Monday meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Trump said he plans to press his counterpart on interference in the 2016 election, as well as Syria and its annexation of Crimea.

“We will of course ask your favorite question about meddling. I will be asking that question again, but we’ll also be talking about other things,” Trump told reporters in Brussels, anticipating that Putin would deny the conclusion of U.S. lawmakers and intelligence officials that the Kremlin interfered in the election.

“He may deny it. It’s one of those things,” Trump said. “All I can do is say ‘Did you? And don’t do it again.’ But he may deny, you’ll be the first to know.”

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