Trump Says Money Is ‘Pouring’ Into NATO, But So Far It’s Barely a Trickle

  • Ad-libbed remark reflects steps to increase defense budgets
  • ‘We expect to see stepped-up defense commitments’: spokesman

Is Money Pouring In as Trump Claims to Fund NATO?

President Donald Trump declared victory on a key element of his international agenda when he told Congress that “money is pouring in” from NATO countries to support the defense alliance, leaving aides to explain the boast.

Trump said in his joint address to Congress on Tuesday evening that his administration’s “very strong and frank discussions” are succeeding in prodding NATO allies to boost defense spending. In an aside that was one of his few departures from his prepared text, the president added,  “In fact I can tell you, the money is pouring in. Very nice.”

Not yet. The idea that money is pouring in appears at odds with the laborious defense budget decisions made by the group’s 28 member nations. White House aides said Wednesday that the progress nonetheless is real, if less immediate than the president suggested.

“The response of allies to the case made by the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of Defense (among others) has been overwhelmingly positive,” Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Wednesday in an email. “We expect to see stepped up defense spending commitments reflected in their next budget cycles.”

Specifically, a White House official who asked not to be identified added that the president was referring to Latvia, Lithuania and Romania, which have outlined plans to meet NATO’s target that every member spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense.

During his presidential campaign, Trump at various points called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete” and warned the U.S. might not honor the pledge to defend any member under attack unless other members started paying their fair share of defense costs.

NATO countries set the 2 percent target for members’ defense spending in 2014. While several countries have increased defense spending in recent years, few meet the 2 percent threshold. The U.S., U.K., Estonia, Poland and Greece were alone among the alliance’s 28 members in meeting that target last year.

The latest official figures are due soon: NATO’s annual report, which will include updated details on defense spending, is scheduled to be published on March 13.

The White House official said Latvia and Lithuania agreed to reach the NATO goal by 2018 and that Romania plans to hit that level next year. The three nations have moved to bolster their defense in response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine.

The economies of those three countries are among the smallest within the NATO alliance. Together they accounted for 0.4 percent of total defense spending by NATO members in 2016, according to a report released by the alliance.

In his speech to Congress, Trump gave his strongest backing yet for NATO while also claiming victory in prodding increased defense spending.

“We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism,” he said. “But our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that.”

Countries including Germany and France have boosted spending on defense, although the increases began before Trump took office. Former President Barack Obama had also prodded -- more gently -- for NATO countries to increase defense spending to meet the target.

The issue has moved up the political agenda since Trump’s election victory, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg saying more must be done in the coming years on “fair burden-sharing.”

“The president of the United States and the American people expect our allies to keep their word and to do more in our common defense, and the president expects real progress by the end of 2017,” Vice President Mike Pence said at the NATO headquarters in Brussels last month. “It is time for actions, not words.”

Navy Commander Sarah Higgins, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said in an interview Wednesday that Defense Secretary James Mattis held discussions with partners about making a“fair contribution” during the recent NATO Defense Ministerial meeting in Brussels.

“That was one of the main messages that we were trying to get across -- that we are committed to NATO but as well we need everyone to have their fair share of the commitment. And the message was well-received.”

— With assistance by Nafeesa Syeed, Jonathan Stearns, and Nikos Chrysoloras

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