‘You tell me if that’s appropriate because I think it’s not….’
(Eli Stokols, Los Angeles Times) BRUSSELS — President Donald Trump kicked off his two-day visit with NATO allies by doing exactly what many of them feared, worsening tensions within the alliance by claiming that Germany, a bulwark of the transatlantic democratic order, “is totally controlled by” and “captive to Russia.”
Trump, who often goes on the attack by accusing someone of behavior he has been accused of, irked allies last month by suggesting that Russia should be readmitted to the G-7, and is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. He began a series of meetings with NATO leaders here Wednesday by suggesting during a welcome breakfast that a natural gas pipeline project has made Germany subservient to Russia.
He did not name the project, but appeared to be referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would transport Russian gas to Germany’s Baltic coast and dramatically increase the amount of gas Russia is able to export directly to Germany. The U.S. and some European Union countries oppose the project.
“Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” Trump said. “You tell me if that’s appropriate because I think it’s not.”
Trump’s posture toward close allies has been remarkably confrontational, especially in comparison to his more conciliatory approach to adversaries, including Russia and North Korea.
In Wednesday’s remarks, he called the potential for increased German reliance on Russia’s natural gas a “very bad thing for NATO. “I think we have to talk to Germany about it,” the president continued.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was to meet with Trump later Wednesday, delivered a preliminary retort upon arriving at the summit. The chancellor, who grew up during the Cold War years in the former East Germany, under the Soviet Union’s control, archly stated that she didn’t need to be lectured about dealing with authoritarian regimes.
“I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union,” she said. “I am very happy that today we are united in freedom, the Federal Republic of Germany. Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions.”
At Trump’s breakfast with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general also pushed back on Trump’s claim. “There are sometimes differences and different views” between allies, he said, and this was “one issue where allies disagree.”
Attempting to refocus the conversation on the broader importance of NATO, Stoltenberg said that “despite differences,” the alliance is an essential pillar of the post-World War II era for democratic countries “to protect and defend each other.”
Even before Trump’s comments about Germany, leaders of the allied governments arrived in Brussels nervous about the American president’s oft-stated ambivalence toward NATO and his repeated demands that they increase their share of military spending to relieve some of the burden on the U.S.
He continued to hammer that point at the breakfast, stating that the situation is “not fair” to American taxpayers. “But we will make it fair,” he said.
Trump singled out Germany for complaint, but Merkel, in her comments upon arriving, took issue with that criticism as well.
“Germany does a lot for NATO,” she said. “Germany is the second largest provider of troops, the largest part of our military capacity is offered to NATO and until today we have a strong engagement towards Afghanistan. In that we also defend the interests of the United States.”
Trump has been pushing NATO members to reach their goal of spending 2 percent of their respective gross domestic product on national defense by 2024 — an agreement reached in 2014, under pressure from the Obama administration. He expressed confidence in his ability to force them to make progress in that direction.
“They will spend more,” he said of the allies. “I have great confidence they’ll be spending more.”
Trump’s repeated claim that NATO members are freeloading off the U.S. is misguided — greater spending by Europe would not necessarily lead to less spending by the U.S. But his repeated complaints have already helped sway a portion of American public opinion against the alliance that has cemented the transatlantic democratic order for more than 70 years. Backing for NATO has declined among Trump’s supporters.
The goal of achieving a military budget that is 2 percent of each country’s GDP does not equate to a payment to NATO or the U.S.
Stoltenberg did credit Trump with spurring NATO countries to boost defense spending, noting that Europe and Canada are projected to spend $266 billion more by 2024, marking the largest increase in a generation.
The increase, he told Trump, was in part “because of your leadership.” Many of the plans for increased spending were developed before Trump appeared on the scene.
Trump expressed “great confidence” in Stoltenberg but called the recent $40-billion commitment since the last NATO meeting a “step, but it’s a very small step.”
©2018 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.