LONDON - NATO leaders are gathering at a golf resort outside of London Wednesday to present a united front amid bitter differences over terrorism, Turkey and increased burden sharing with the United States.
The 29 leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, posed for a traditional "family" photograph before retreating for the planned three-hour meeting. The leaders are expected to release a statement afterwards promising to focus more attention on the challenges posed by Russia and rising superpower China.
On the sidelines of the meeting Wednesday, Trump met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The White House said "the two Presidents discussed the importance of Turkey fulfilling its alliance commitments, further strengthening commerce through boosting bilateral trade by $100 billion, regional security challenges, and energy security."
A day earlier, leaders had gathered for informal meetings to mark the 70th anniversary of the alliance's founding, but the day was overshadowed when tensions between President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron broke out in full public display.
Macron vs Trump
In an almost 40-minute session with journalists the two leaders clashed on a number of issues including burden sharing within NATO, terrorism, Turkey’s invasion in northern Syria, and the U.S. withdrawal from an arms treaty with Russia.
The two leaders met hours after Trump criticized Macron for his recent statement describing NATO as experiencing a "brain death," due to diminished U.S. leadership. Trump called it a "nasty statement."
As the two sat down for talks, Trump warned NATO member countries who do not meet NATO’s guideline of spending 2% of GDP on collective defense could be dealt with “from a trade standpoint” referring to tariffs on products, including French wine.
This prompted Macron, who is currently contributing 1.9% of France’s GDB towards NATO’s defense, to push back.
“It’s not just about money,” Macron said. “What about peace in Europe?” he asked Trump.
“It's impossible just to say we have to put money, we have to put soldiers, without being clear on the fundamentals of what NATO should be,” Macron said.
Macron said he supports a stronger European component in NATO but points out that after the end of the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty, European countries are faced with the new threat of Russian missiles.
The Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in August after what it says were Moscow’s repeated violations of the agreement.
Trump and Macron argued about how to deal with Islamic State after the October withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting the alliance. The withdrawal paved the way for Turkey to launch an offensive against the U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in northern Syria and triggered fear among allies of a potential IS resurgence.
In response to a question on whether France should do more to take Islamic State fighters captured in the Middle East, Trump asked Macron if he would like “some nice ISIS fighters”.
Macron countered that the main problem is IS fighters in the region. Referring to the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria, Macron said “you have more and more of these fighters due to the situation today”.
Macron is “more on the side of those who wants to actually face up to the crisis and talk about it,” said Hans Kundnani of Chatham House. He is the sort of “disruptive factor” compared to other leaders who may choose to paper over disagreements, Kundnani said.
NATO chief meeting
Earlier Tuesday, as Trump met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the U.S. president said Macron's "brain death" comments regarding NATO were “insulting” to other members.
In the past Trump has repeatedly criticized the alliance as “obsolete” and expressed his desire to leave it. But the president seemed to have changed his tune, saying that NATO “serves a great purpose”.
The French leader warned in a recent interview with The Economist that European countries can no longer rely on the United States to defend NATO allies and need to start taking care of their own security.
"As Emmanuel Macron considers complacency as the most pressing danger facing Europe and European security, he is likely to reaffirm his comments and continue to push for all allies to clarify their position in this debate," said Martin Quencez, Deputy Director of the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“It is also France’s role to show that the president’s disruptive method can foster constructive reforms, and that his harsh criticisms can be followed by a more positive agenda for the transatlantic partnership,” said Quencez.
The dispute between two leaders was precisely the kind of flare-up that summit organizers have desperately tried to avoid, as it overshadowed discussions of substance in the summit, including the idea of a more equitable burden-sharing touted by Trump.
Stoltenberg praised Trump on Tuesday, saying his leadership on the issue is "having a real impact." He cited a $130 billion increase in defense budgets among the non-U.S. NATO members and said that would go to $400 billion by 2024.
Only 9 out of 29 member countries currently meet NATO’s guideline of spending 2% of GDP on collective defense.
In addition to budget discussions, NATO’s secretary general said leaders would be talking about counterterrorism efforts, arms control, relations with Russia and the rise of China.
Stoltenberg also rejected the suggestion that NATO is “brain-dead” saying that the alliance is active, agile and adapting. “We have just implemented the largest reinforcements of collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” he added.
The issue of member countries being delinquent was brought up again in Trump’s meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
When asked about whether he would defend a country that does not meet its defense spending target, Trump appeared non-committal.
“I would look at it as a group, but I think it's very unfair when a country doesn't pay,” Trump said.
The principle of collective defense is enshrined in NATO’s Article 5, that an attack on one member is an attack on all of its members. The alliance has only invoked the article once in its history—in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the U.S.
Cloud of impeachment
The summit comes as Trump faces an impeachment investigation back home. He repeated his criticism Tuesday of Democrats who control the House of Representatives, saying it is unfair to hold hearings while he is attending the summit.
Trump is not the first U.S. president to attend a NATO summit under the cloud of impeachment. In 1974 Richard Nixon went to NATO's 25th anniversary meeting in Brussels while the U.S. House of Representatives was concluding its impeachment inquiry. Nixon stepped down a few weeks later.