Germany Trades Barbs With Trump on Defense After Merkel Meeting

  • Trump says Germany owes vast amounts for U.S. defense spending
  • Germany rebuffs Trump over meeting NATO funding commitments

Trump Says U.S., Germany Have an 'Incredible Opportunity'

Germany and U.S. traded barbs over the weekend about defense spending following an awkward first meeting between President Donald Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday rebuffed Trump over her country’s commitment to meeting NATO funding commitments after the U.S. president posted on Twitter Saturday that “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

Donald Trump greets Angela Merkel on March 17.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“There is no debit account in NATO,” von der Leyen countered in her statement, arguing that the spending goal for NATO members includes other activities beyond the defense alliance. “We all want fair burden-sharing and that requires a modern concept of security.”

The president wrote that he’d had a “GREAT meeting with” Merkel, brushing off what he termed “fake” reports suggesting otherwise. The exchanges come after Merkel, at a joint White House press conference on Friday, appeared to tweak the president about his criticisms of her and others on social media and elsewhere, including an interview in January calling Germany’s open-border refugee policy a “catastrophic mistake.”

“In the period leading up to this visit, I’ve always said it’s much, much better to talk to one another and not about one another, and I think our conversation proved this,” the German leader said through a translator.

Trump on Friday said he had “reiterated to Chancellor Merkel my strong support for NATO, as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defense.” He said “many nations owe vast sums of money from past years and it is very unfair to the United States.”

‘Free Riders’

Trump isn’t the first U.S. leader to complain that most NATO nations, including Germany, weren’t meeting the alliance’s goal that members spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Germany spends about 1.2 percent on defense now.

President Barack Obama in 2016 said in an interview with The Atlantic about his foreign policy doctrine that “free riders aggravate me.” Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, said a few weeks ago said that meeting the 2 percent goal is “unrealistic,” although that’s a much lower percentage than the U.S. spends on defense.

Friday’s visit by Merkel, postponed from earlier in the week by a snowstorm, was a day of tense cordiality and sometimes awkward body language. Trump was unresponsive when Merkel leaned in for a handshake in the Oval Office at the request of photographers.

There were few public attempts at the jocularity leaders often use to leaven such encounters, except for a barbed reference Trump made that they had “in common, perhaps” the experience of surveillance by U.S. intelligence.

Policy Vision

The visit was a test of Trump’s foreign policy vision as he welcomed a leader who not only represents Europe’s biggest economy, but has emerged as the most visible advocate of the post-World War II international order. The new U.S. president, a political novice before the 2016 campaign, had his first face-to-face talks with a veteran German leader whom he frequently maligned on the campaign trail, and whose free-trade, open-border politics stand in marked contrast to Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric.

“He’s been president less than two months; she has been chancellor more than 10 years,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “She has all this experience. She’s the most important leader in Europe. Some would say she’s the most important leader in the world right now.”

‘We Want Fairness’

The two clashed on trade on Friday. “The negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than the negotiators for the United States,” Trump said. “But hopefully we can even it out. We don’t want victory; we want fairness.”

Merkel subtly corrected the U.S. president. “When we talk about trade talks, the European Union negotiates for all of the member states in the European Union,” she said. “In this spirit, I would be very happy if the European Union and the U.S. can take up talks again.”

Trump bristled at a German reporter’s question about his unsubstantiated accusations that Obama had placed him under surveillance before making the reference to a disclosure, made during the Obama administration, that the U.S. was intercepting Merkel’s mobile phone communications. Turning to Merkel, he joked, “At least we both have something in common, perhaps.” Merkel didn’t smile.

Merkel was looking to Trump -- who has said he wants to reset his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- to ease concerns within Europe that the U.S. could abandon efforts to pressure Moscow into changing course. Merkel has struck a hard line over incursions into Ukraine and the Kremlin’s support for Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad.

Trump suggested before he took office that the U.S. might not come to the defense of allies who didn’t meet the 2 percent spending goal, and said the coalition doesn’t always best serve American interests. But U.S. officials have publicly praised the alliance since Trump took office, and Merkel is among European leaders who have outlined steps to boost defense spending to the target level.

— With assistance by Toluse Olorunnipa, Steven T. Dennis, and Arne Delfs

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