A Recap Of The Contentious NATO Summit

Jul 12, 2018
Originally published on July 12, 2018 8:59 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, when President Trump landed in London, as we mentioned, he was coming from Brussels, from this two-day summit of NATO. And he did a dramatic about-face before taking off. After tirades calling into question the usefulness of the military alliance, he held a news conference this morning and took credit for what he called commitments to increased military spending by NATO members. He also declared that he believes in the alliance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The United States' commitment to NATO is very strong, remains very strong.

KELLY: NPR's Alice Fordham is just back in London from Brussels where she was covering the summit. Alice, welcome back. Welcome home.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Thank you.

KELLY: So what are we to make of all this? I mean, what was at stake here, and does Trump deserve credit for solving this crisis?

FORDHAM: Well, maybe we can remind ourselves of what the issue in question is here. So NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is pretty worried about global security right now, especially growing threats from Russia. And most of its members are here in Europe. And after the end of the Cold War nearly 30 years ago - because it has been pretty peaceful, their armies and defense forces have gotten maybe a little threadbare. They haven't been a priority.

And this is where this figure that we've been hearing so much about - 2 percent - has come from. Trump's beef is that his allies in this alliance on the whole spend less than 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense while the U.S. spends about 3.57 or more, as Trump calculates it. And he's been complaining about this, berating European countries, especially Germany on Twitter, in person.

KELLY: Right. There have been all these percentage numbers - the 3.57, the 2, 4 - all these numbers flying around. But bottom line - to his claim that he persuaded other NATO leaders to increase their defense spending, did he?

FORDHAM: No because they had already agreed to do that way back in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and Europe was badly spooked. But it is true that they have mostly not done it yet. Just a handful of the allies managed that 2 percent. And now what's happened is that several countries have reaffirmed their efforts to try to get to that level, and that's something that NATO was keen to emphasize at this summit. And the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, thanked Trump for leadership on that, gave him credit before the summit had even started.

But then after some tweets last night calling on the allies to increase their spending in months rather than years, it seems likely that Trump precipitated an unplanned meeting today. And when he emerged, he gave this press conference that was big on triumphant rhetoric and light on details. He said that countries had agreed to move faster to spend more. And then the secretary general - he praised Trump yet again afterwards. So it was very theatrical. It gave Trump a win. And NATO officials seemed happy for that to happen.

KELLY: What about this kind of ripple of panic that I gather went through the summit this morning when rumors and reports started flying that Trump might threaten to pull out of the alliance altogether? What were you hearing from people there?

FORDHAM: I don't think from speaking to diplomats there that people thought it was likely, but just the suggestion that it might be possible did definitely make people nervous. One thing people were concerned about, I think it's fair to say happened, is that Trump would hold people's attention. There wouldn't be a lot of time to talk about the things the summit was actually meant to be about.

KELLY: And remind us what those were. We kind of lost track of it in all the chaos at the summit.

FORDHAM: Exactly. A lot of it was Russia. There were also people who were very concerned about growing threats from cybercrime, from hybrid warfare. I spoke with a defense analyst, Ulrike Franke, who said there's a lot of things NATO forces aren't really fit for at the moment.

ULRIKE FRANKE: It would have been good to take this meeting as an occasion to address these. But because, you know, we are at this stage where we even have to make the argument for NATO's existence at all and talk about these really almost basic questions, we don't really get to that. And I think that is what I'm mostly worried about because we're not really putting the organization in a great place for the future because we're so focused on preserving what we have.

FORDHAM: So there was frustration that those things were pushed to the side of the agenda as Trump called into question whether NATO should exist at all.

KELLY: That's NPR's Alice Fordham with me here in London now, reporting on the NATO summit that was in Brussels. Thanks, Alice.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.