LONDON – NATO leaders gathered here Wednesday for talks amid public infighting between some of the military alliance’s biggest member countries, including sharp exchanges between President Donald Trump and France’s leader Emmanuel Macron.
Trump will hold one-to-one talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel later.
But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg rejected criticism from Macron that the military alliance is suffering from “brain death.” He also dismissed complaints from Trump that member states are not boosting their NATO military budgets quickly enough and insisted that the organization is adapting to modern challenges.
“NATO is agile, NATO is active, NATO is adapting,” Stoltenberg said before chairing a meeting of the alliance’s members at a luxury hotel and golf resort outside London.
“As long as we are able to deliver substance… then NATO proves once again that we are able to respond to a shifting security landscape, and that’s the best way to also provide unity of this alliance,” the Norwegian national said.
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The disputes have threatened to undermine the credibility of the 29-nation alliance as it marks its 70th anniversary. Trump and Macron clashed Tuesday over the French leader’s criticism of NATO. Macron said NATO needs “a wake-up call” and expressed dissatisfaction over a lack of U.S. leadership – comments that did not sit well with Trump but also cast him as the defender of an alliance he has repeatedly disparaged as “obsolete” and far too dependent on U.S. funding.
Trump described Macron’s remarks as “very nasty.”
The two leaders also diverged about how to ensure the Islamic State group does not regain a foothold in Syria after Turkey’s incursion against Syrian Kurds there.
NATO leaders and diplomats have been at pains to project unity as they gather for discussions on a range of security issues encompassing a resurgent Russia, China’s growing military and technological prowess, trade and climate policies, and the evolving threat from international terrorism.
“If NATO has a motto, it is as Jens (Stoltenberg) says, one for all, and all for one,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in remarks opening the meetings, referring to Article 5, the NATO principle that if any one member is attacked, all will attempt to defend it.
But Trump’s behavior is also center-stage.
In video footage recorded Tuesday night during a NATO reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, several world leaders were caught on camera apparently discussing Trump, although he isn’t directly mentioned by name.
“He was late because he takes a 40-minute press conference off the top,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can be heard saying in the video, an apparent reference to Trump’s long unscheduled Q&A session with journalists earlier Tuesday. Trudeau is seen standing in a huddle with Johnson, Macron, Johnson and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Britain’s Princess Anne –the queen’s daughter – is just visible behind Rutte’s left shoulder.
Trump was also late for his formal welcoming handshake with Johnson on Wednesday.
“There’s an assumption among leaders that, because NATO has survived these types of crises in the past, it will brush aside this latest scare,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign policy expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.
“This would perhaps be true if France and Turkey were the only problems. However, they’re not. The issue is far bigger, and heralds from the U.S. – where an unenthusiastic president is unwilling to make commitments to, or work for the betterment, of western defense,” he added. “Macron, not unjustifiably, sees Trump as turning his back on Europe and wants NATO member states, and the EU, to wake up to this reality.”
Macron stood by his comments, saying Wednesday that they had sparked vital discussions. “It’s allowed us to raise fundamental debates,” he said. In particular, “how to build sustainable peace in Europe.” He added that “(NATO) debates should be about other things than budgets and finances,” an apparent reference to Trump’s persistent gripes about many NATO members who haven’t met the alliance’s defense spending thresholds, currently 2% of GDP. Just nine members are expected to hit that level by the end of the year. The U.S. spends more on NATO than any other country.
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