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Dec. 2, 2021

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NATO 70th birthday overshadowed by Trump

Celebrations muted amid questions of U.S. commitment

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In normal times, NATO’s 70th anniversary would bring alliance leaders together for elaborate ceremonies, self-congratulatory speeches and declarations of unshakable unity. Not when they’re meeting in Donald Trump’s Washington.

Instead, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has opted for a more subdued commemoration this week. As foreign ministers gather at the State Department and fan out across town for speeches and conferences, they’ll be watching their Twitter feeds to see whether President Donald Trump uses the occasion to belittle their efforts and question their cause.

“NATO is not looking for a high-profile event with Donald Trump,” said Doug Lute, a former U.S. ambassador to the alliance during the Obama administration. “This is unprecedented. We’re at the 70th anniversary but the first time where allies have doubted the commitment of the American president.”

These aren’t happy days for NATO. Trump has repeatedly questioned the utility of the alliance to his “American First” foreign policy and regularly complains that the U.S. is being short-changed because few other members meet the goal of spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.

He may renew those complaints today, when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is scheduled to meet with the president at the White House. So far Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, has succeeded in finessing Trump’s criticism by showering him with praise and credit.

“I expect that the message from President Trump will be that the United States is committed to NATO — that NATO is important for our shared security — but at the same that we need a fairer sharing of the burden,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday in Brussels about the planned talks at the White House. “This has been a very consistent message of President Trump.”

At a NATO summit in Brussels in July, Trump hurled insults at members and made false claims that he’d extracted promises of new defense spending. Rather than taking umbrage, 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 at the time, in an echo of past efforts by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to assuage the president through flattery. That political acumen may have helped Stoltenberg, 60, win an extension of his term last week to 2022.

Stoltenberg may be more tempted to allude to differences over Trump’s policies when he speaks to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, as Macron did in an appearance before lawmakers last April.

Spending sticking point

On Monday, Stoltenberg said members of the 29-nation NATO “disagree on many issues” but such differences are neither new nor unusual for an alliance made up of democracies.

But Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is sure to echo Trump’s criticism of other NATO members’ defense spending when he hosts his counterparts at the State Department on Thursday.

“There’s real value in the partnership with Western countries that share our democratic values,” Pompeo said Thursday at the National Review Institute Ideas Forum in Washington. “There is also real value in a country that is wealthy spending more than 1.25 percent of its GDP on defense.”

Exacerbating the differences over defense spending is a push by the Trump administration for allies that host U.S. troops to pay far more for their presence, even floating an idea known as “Cost Plus 50” — for governments to pay the full cost, plus a 50 percent premium.

And in a letter this month, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell threatened to cut back on intelligence sharing with some NATO allies if they buy equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies Co. for new 5G telecom networks. The U.S. says the equipment can be used by the government in Beijing to spy on the West.

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