A meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began on a confrontational note on Wednesday with U.S. President Trump singling out Germany for criticism, accusing the largest and wealthiest Europeanmember of the defense alliance of being a “captive” of Russia.
During a breakfast meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump pointedly criticized Germany for allowing Russian energy company Gazprom to construct the Nord Stream 2 pipeline through its waters.
“Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” asserted Trump.
“How can you be together when a country is getting its energy from the country you want protection against?” the president added, questioning NATO’s collective defense principle.
Germany, according to the U.S. leader, “got rid of their coal plants, got rid of their nuclear, they’re getting so much of the oil and gas from Russia. I think it’s something NATO has to look at.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel – during her arrival later — noted she knew all too well from her childhood in the East what it is like to live under Soviet control. But energy deals with Russia, she explained, do not make 21st century Berlin beholden to Moscow.
“I am very happy that today we are united in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany. Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions,” she said.
Proponents of the $10 billion offshore natural gas pipeline running from Russia assert it enhances Europe’s energy security and diversification and helps the continent reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Trump on Wednesday kept up his demands for NATO members to contribute more money to the defense alliance that has been the linchpin of the West’s post-World War Two military cooperation.
“The United States is paying far too much and other countries are not paying enough,” complained Trump. “This has been going on for decades,it’s disproportionate and not fair to the taxpayers of the United States.”
Trump also took credit for beginning a reversal of declining defense spending among NATO members.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg finds himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to bridge differences between the United States and the other 28 members of the alliance.
“My main task is to try to keep us together and I do that by trying to find common ground,” explained Stoltenberg.
The NATO secretary-general acknowledges there are substantial differences between the allies. “The gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is one issue where allies disagree,” said Stoltenberg in a reply to Mr. Trump’s comments. “But the strength of NATO is despite these differences we have always been able to unite around our core task, to protect and defend each other, because we understand we are stronger together than apart.”
Stoltenberg said that while the burden of defense spending remains unfair, that is changing.
“Europe and North America are doing more together, we’re not weakening,” according to Stoltenberg. He also noted that since Trump became president, U.S. funding for the defense of Europe “has increased by 40 percent.”
European leaders, since Trump’s election nearly 18 months ago, have fretted and fumed about the president’s bashing but have hesitated to lash back publicly. That changed on Tuesday just as the U.S. president was leaving for the trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
“Dear America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don’t have that many,” remarked European Commission President Donald Tusk, adding that Trump’s “criticizing Europe almost daily” is no way to treat a good ally.
During the NATO summit on Wednesday and Thursday, Trump is also holding an unspecified number of one-on-one meetings with other European leaders, according to White House officials.
Observers say those leaders are certain to be anxious after the U.S. president berated his fellow leaders on trade at the recent Group of Seven summit in Canada. They note there is particular unease over Trump’s not hesitating to link security cooperation and trade differences at those encounters, something previous U.S. administrations had been careful to keep separate.
Weighing in on Britain
Following the discussions in Belgium, Trump heads to Britain, where he is to be hosted by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who suddenly finds herself embroiled in domestic political upheaval stemming from intra-party disagreement over terms for the country’s exit from the EU, known as Brexit.
Trump on Tuesday commented on Britain’s current political storm. Asked if May should resign, the president responded, “that’s certainly up to the people.”
May’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, resigned on Monday over differences with the prime minister on her terms for Brexit.
Trump referred to Johnson as a friend who has been “very, very supportive and very nice to me,” adding, “Maybe I’ll speak to him when I get over there.”
Trump called it an “interesting time for both NATO and Britain, but said “we will work it out and all countries will be happy.”
Following visits to England and Scotland, where the president owns two golf resorts, Trump will go to Helsinki for a highly anticipated summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all,” relative to the anticipated contentious encounters with America’s traditional European allies, Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.
Asked if Putin is a friend or foe, Trump replied, “I really can’t say right now. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a competitor.”
The president added that “getting along with Russia, getting along with China, is a good thing.”
Trump has faced substantial criticism from opposition Democrats and more muted concern among lawmakers of his own Republican party for hesitating to criticize Putin and Russian actions since his election.
A special counsel, under the U.S. Department of Justice, is investigating allegations of Russian interference in America’s 2016 presidential election and the extent of contacts between members of Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
The president has consistently denied any wrongdoing by his campaign, characterizing the investigation as a “witch hunt” and predicting it will conclude there was no collusion.