President Donald Trump has written sharply worded letters to the leaders of several NATO allies, including Germany, Belgium, Norway and Canada, taking them to task for spending too little on their own defense and warning that the United States is losing patience with what he said was their failure to meet security obligations shared by the alliance.
The letters, sent in June, are the latest sign of acrimony between Trump and U.S. allies as he heads to a NATO summit meeting next week in Brussels. It will be a closely watched test of the president’s commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance after he has repeatedly questioned its value and claimed that its members are taking advantage of the United States.
Trump’s criticism raised the prospect of another confrontation involving the president and U.S. allies after a blowup by Trump at the Group of 7 gathering in June, and increased concerns that far from projecting solidarity in the face of threats from Russia, the meeting will highlight divisions within the alliance. Such a result could play into the hands of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is to meet with Trump in Helsinki after the NATO meeting, and whose primary goal is sowing divisions within NATO.
In his letters, the president hinted that after more than a year of public and private complaints that allies have not done enough to share the burden of collective defense, he may be considering a response, including adjusting the U.S. military presence around the world.
“As we discussed during your visit in April, there is growing frustration in the United States that some allies have not stepped up as promised,” Trump wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in a particularly pointed letter, according to someone who saw it and shared excerpts with The New York Times. “The United States continues to devote more resources to the defense of Europe when the continent’s economy, including Germany’s, are doing well and security challenges abound. This is no longer sustainable for us.”
“Growing frustration,” Trump wrote, “is not confined to our executive branch. The United States Congress is concerned as well.”
The president’s complaint is that many NATO allies are not living up to the commitment they made at their Wales summit meeting in 2014 to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on national defense. U.S. presidents have long complained about the lack of burden-sharing by NATO member countries, but Trump has taken that criticism much further, claiming that some of the United States’ closest allies are essentially deadbeats who have failed to pay debts to the organization, a fundamental misunderstanding of how it functions.
The Trump administration has already reportedly been analyzing a large-scale withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany, after Trump expressed surprise that 35,000 active-duty troops are stationed there and complained that NATO countries were not contributing enough to the alliance.
In the letter, Trump told Merkel that Germany also deserves blame for the failure of other NATO countries to spend enough: “Continued German underspending on defense undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also do not plan to meet their military spending commitments, because others see you as a role model.”
In language that is echoed in his letters to the leaders of other countries, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium, Trump said he understands the “domestic political pressure” brought to bear by opponents of boosting military expenditures, noting that he has expended “considerable political capital to increase our own military spending.”
Trump has long complained about NATO and routinely grouses that the United States is treated shabbily by multilateral organizations of which it is a member, be it the World Trade Organization or the North Atlantic alliance. But in Europe, the letters to NATO allies have been greeted with some degree of alarm because of their suggestion that Trump is prepared to impose consequences on the allies – as he has done in an escalating tariff fight with European trading partners – if they do not do what he is asking.
“Trump still seems to think that NATO is like a club that you owe dues to, or some sort of protection racket where the U.S. is doing all the work protecting all these deadbeat Europeans while they’re sitting around on vacation, and now he is suggesting there are consequences,” said Derek Chollet, a former Defense Department official who is the executive vice president for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said Sunday that it was NATO members who refused to spend more on defense – not the president – who were responsible for undercutting the alliance.
“The president wants a strong NATO,” Bolton said in an interview on CBS' “Face the Nation.” “If you think Russia’s a threat, ask yourself this question: Why is Germany spending less than 1.2 percent of its GNP? When people talk about undermining the NATO alliance, you should look at those who are carrying out steps that make NATO less effective militarily.”
But for diplomats hoping fervently to avoid another high-profile summit meeting collapse with Trump as the instigator, the letters were concerning.
“Europeans, like many folks in our Defense Department, think that there are many good things that could come out of this summit if only they can keep it from going off the rails,” Chollet said. “They are hoping to survive without irreparable damage, and so the fact that you have all these storm clouds surrounding NATO and Trump is really worrisome.”