UPDATED: The leadership of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, was already being put to the test Wednesday morning, when US President Donald Trump fired off a verbal attack on his own NATO ally, Germany. Trump also put Stoltenberg on the spot, in claiming that Germany was “totally under the control of Russia,” but the US president changed his tune after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. being present or having a chance to explain why Germany entered into a controversial gas pipeline deal with Russia.
She wasn’t present nor did she have a chance to explain why Germany had entered into a controversial gas pipeline deal with Russia that Trump blasted. After a meeting with Merkel later in the day, he backed down on his provocative claims. Suddenly, reported news bureau Reuters, he was claiming that “we have very, very good relations with the German chancellor. We have a fantastic relation with Germany.”
Stoltenberg was largely recruited to his top NATO post by Merkel and Trump’s predecessor as president, Barack Obama. He clearly felt forced to remain silent out of politeness and respect for the office Trump holds, while Trump unleashed his lengthy verbal assault on Germany at a morning breakfast meeting.
Stoltenberg, seated directly across from Trump, made a few visible efforts to interject and respond to Trump’s allegations that Germany had made itself beholden to Russia by paying “billions” to buy Russian gas. Trump just kept talking, refusing to give anyone else at the table a chance to speak. His ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and his new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, also sat silently while their boss held forth.
Setting a confrontational tone
The entire session quickly set the tone for the NATO Summit that many have been dreading because of Trump’s unpredictable behaviour and the uncertainty he has created within the western defense alliance. His morning tirade went on for more than three full minutes, with Trump repeating his allegation again and again that Germany was spending “billions and billions of dollars” on a “massive oil and gas deal with Russia … while we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia.” He claimed that “we’re protecting Germany, we’re protecting France, we’re protecting all of these (NATO) countries and then numerous of the countries (sic) go out and make a pipeline deal with Russia,” sending “billions of dollars into the coffers of Russia.”
Looking right at Stoltenberg, Trump said: “So we’re supposed to protect you against Russia but they’re paying billions of dollars to Russia and I think that’s very inappropriate, and the former chancellor of German is the head of the company that’s supplying the gas … so you tell me, is that appropriate? I’ve been complaining about this from the time I got here. It should have never been allowed to have happened.”
Stoltenberg opened his month and tried to respond, but Trump carried on, claiming the deal means “Germany is totally controlled by Russia, because they’ll be getting 60 to 70 percent of their gas from Russia.” He added that the pipeline deal “is a very bad thing for NATO,” also that Germany is paying only just over 1 percent of its GNP on defense while the US “is paying 4.2 percent.” Trump didn’t mention that the deal has been part of Germany’s efforts to acquire more climate-friendly energy supplies, or that the deal already has been a subject of political debate within Germany.
Trump, who claimed other US presidents were aware that the US was carrying the biggest financial burden for NATO, “but they never did anything about it.” He thinks it’s an unfair burden on the US taxpayer not least since he thinks “Germany is a rich country” who could pay more for NATO. “I think we need to talk about this,” he said, “we’re going to have to do something, because we can’t put up with it.” He also suggested that Stoltenberg agreed with him that Germany’s pipeline deal was “inappropriate.”
To see the video of the breakfast meeting, click to NRK’s coverage here (external link to NRK’s website).
For Stoltenberg, it was a bad start to this year’s NATO summit. Trump did exactly what Stoltenberg didn’t want any of the NATO members to do, by bringing trade deals and other issues of contention into the NATO discussions that are meant to strengthen the alliance and work out details of important new initiatives such as naval support in the Arctic.
It also crystalized how the new leader of NATO’s biggest member can disrupt or even destroy all the western cooperation that’s been built up since World War II. While conflicts have regularly occurred, as they do within any group of people or countries, Trump struck out at NATO’s next-largest partner with the cameras rolling. He also claimed, just days before his first major meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that Germany, in his view, is now “held captive” by Russia because of the trade deal over gas.
That remark was firmly refuted by Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas. “We’re not held captive either by Moscow or Washington. We are one of the guarantors of the free world, and that’s how it will continue to be.” Merkel herself said that her meeting with Trump offer “an opportunity to discuss economic development, and the future of our trade relations.” The US has been threatening to impose more high customs duties on German exports, including automobiles.
The breakfast meeting was supposed to be a friendly affair. “When we stand together, also in a meeting with Russia, we’re stronger,” Stoltenberg ventured to say.
“No, you just make Russia richer,” retorted Trump. He had otherwise praised Stoltenberg earlier, claiming that the NATO leader had worked “very hard” to get other NATO members to boost defense spending. Then he went on to publicly confront Stoltenberg, who’s charged with leading the alliance and keeping it together.
Trump’s latest tirade did not bode well for the future of NATO’s alliance, the survival of which Stoltenberg himself said last month was “not carved in stone.” In his last major speech before the summit, Stoltenberg addressed the threats to NATO before an audience in England. It’s ironic that the leader of the alliance’s own biggest member has recently emerged as perhaps the biggest threat of all.
Stoltenberg, who took on his NATO post in 2014 and was recently asked to stay on, has also been forced to acknowledge that the political disagreement between European allies and the US under Trump is now so strong that he must appeal to both sides that the split must not affect security cooperation. “And we must stand up for a world order based on international relations that have served us so well for the last 70 years,” Stoltenberg said.
‘Demanding but meaningful job’
In a recent interview with Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, Stoltenberg said it was his job to make sure that the NATO summit doesn’t end in division like the G7 did in Canada. He admitted to “more disagreement between allies than there has been for a long time.”
Several defense experts believe Stoltenberg is leading NATO during its most demanding period ever. He admits that when he agreed to take on the job, “we hadn’t heard much about ISIL, it was before Russia annexed Crimea, it was before North Korea had tested long-distance nuclear weapons.
“Therefore it has become a more demanding, but also more meaningful job,” Stoltenberg told Dagbladet. “The more unsafe and unpredictable the world is, the more important it is to have a strong NATO.” He thinks it’s to his advantage that he spent a long career in politics and coalition-building before becoming NATO chief: “It’s all about getting various groups to work together and make compromises, to see what’s possible and not possible.”
It hasn’t been and won’t be easy to get Trump to “work together.” While Stoltenberg has been a champion of working for what Norwegians call fellesskap (the common good), Trump is uncommon indeed.
Stoltenberg praises Merkel
It’s also no secret that Stoltenberg gets along well with German Chancellor Merkel, noting that she “always stands solidly in favour of trans-Atlantic relations, and the importance of staying together and finding solutions. She’s a politician who impresses with her ability to find compromises and handle difficult issues. I’ve had the joy of working with Merkel since I formed my second government (in 2009).”
Now they both have the “joy” of working with Trump. The NATO summit runs through Thursday, when all the leaders are supposed to deliver a joint declaration. Stoltenberg told Oslo newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) in late June that while he was prepared for outbursts from Trump, he’s also determined to produce agreements on improving preparedness, strengthening the fight against terrorism, renewing NATO’s commondo structure, strengthening cyber defense and expanding cooperation with the EU. He doesn’t want Trump to overshadow all of that.
“Trump is a different sort of politician who uses direct language and who has made decisions other NATO countries disagree with,” Stoltenberg told DN. “There are serious disagreements that we won’t take lightly. But despite all that, the NATO cooperation has shown a strength that has surprised many. The Americans have a greater presence in Europe and European countries are spending more on defense.
“I’m confident that European leaders are confident that NATO is there, that the US feels committed to NATO and stands up for European security, and that we will approve more measures to strengthen that.”