UPDATED: Norway’s delegation to the NATO Summit in Brussels could smile at least a bit more broadly after all allied heads of state, including US President Donald Trump, formally agreed on what they’d set out to do. Confusion reigned, however, after Trump claimed he’d successfully demanded more defense spending at an unscheduled meeting Thursday morning, but there were no hard new numbers to back it up.
Trump didn’t spoil the summit, but he didn’t alleviate uncertainty either. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg felt compelled to call an “extra” meeting of NATO leaders Thursday morning because, he said at a press conference Thursday afternoon, “we needed more time” to discuss how the burden of NATO funding should be shared.
He’d been more upbeat late Wednesday, when he stated that “the decisions we have made show that Europe and North America are working together.” (See below for NATO’s new agenda.) The day had otherwise started out badly with another torrent of complaints and criticism from Trump. Even though Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, had told Norwegian media prior to the meeting that he was prepared for outbursts from Trump, a lengthy verbal attack on Germany by the US president caught many by surprise and heightened tensions.
By the end of the day, Trump, who had claimed Germany was “totally controlled” by Russia because of a pipeline deal, was attracting plenty of criticism both in Europe and back home in the US. He completely changed his tone towards Germany, praising the country as a “great ally” after German Chancellor Angela Merkel had stressed Germany’s independence without mentioning Trump’s name.
Trump made no apologies at his own press conference Thursday morning for his behaviour the day before, suggesting instead that it was “effective.” Nor would he change his habit of sending out often provocative and conflicting messages via social media, jokingly repeating his earlier claim that “I’m a very stable genius.”
Reports were circulating, meanwhile, that Trump threatened his NATO allies behind the scenes, claiming the US would go it alone on defense unless everyone else immediately boosted their defense budgets. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg later denied that, saying Trump had made no such ultimatum.
Trump also claimed he had secured commitments for more defense funding, taking credit for raising as much as USD 40 billion more for NATO. Details remained sketchy, though, and it was difficult to assess whether any new funding commitments were made beyond what NATO members agreed upon themselves several years ago. Trump characterized the NATO Summit as “amazing” and ultimately declared that “the US commitment to NATO is strong.”
The entire drama tested Stoltenberg’s own leadership and he passed by most accounts, even though that clearly involved placating Trump. Stoltenberg could only clarify that around USD 41 billion had come into NATO since Trump took office, but that’s nothing that Trump can claim credit for since it’s tied to the goal agreed in 2014 for all NATO countries to boost defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024. Stoltenberg had trouble being able to give Trump credit for any new funding but said the allies’ “open and frank discussion” left him believing the alliance is now stronger because there’s an “increased sense of urgency” and “understanding that we are stronger together.” In that sense, Stoltenberg said, Trump “has had an impact.”
NATO’s new agenda
Stoltenberg could ultimately claim, as he had on Wednesday, that “NATO is delivering and we are determined to keep our almost 1 billion citizens safe and secure.” Their plans for doing so were somewhat overshadowed by Trump’s conflicting statements and habit of grabbing attention, but all NATO members formally agreed upon the following:
*** A new “readiness initiative” will involve 30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat vessels ready for use within 30 days if needed.
*** Of particular importance to Norway, which serves as NATO’s “eyes and ears” in the Arctic, is creation of a new command for the Atlantic to be based in Norfolk, Virginia. It will back Norway’s patrols in the northern areas and offer more attention and defense capability on the Norwegian and Barents Seas, where Russian forces have also been training and patrolling. Another new command for support and logistics will be based in Ulm, Germany.
*** A new Cyper Operations Centre will also be created at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium.
*** NATO could also confirm that its allies will launch a new NATO training mission in Iraq, along with increasing support for Jordan and Tunisia. Both operations are aimed at strengthening counter-terrorism efforts. Norway, which already has been helping train soldiers and police in Iraq, will contribute 10 soldiers to the new initiative, provided Iraqi authorities approve. Norway’s contribution to the current US-led coalition that’s fighting the terrorist group IS, will be reduced from around 110 to 60 soldiers, according to the Norwegian defense department.
*** Norway, meanwhile, will increase its contribution to NATO’s “Resolute Support Mission” in Afghanistan from around 60 people to 70 next year. News bureau NTB reported that Norway will simultaneously reduce its military staffing for NATO’s presence on its eastern flank in Lithuania, when Norway makes more troops available for NATO’s Response Force, but will return to Lithuania in the second half of 2019 and maintain around 120 Norwegian soldiers in the area bordering on Russia until 2022.
*** The NATO allied leaders also agreed to invite “the government in Skopje” (Macedonia) to become the 30th member of the alliance. That follows resolution of a long-standing conflict over the name of the country that Greece has also claimed.
NATO members also confirmed their earlier-agreed goal of boosting their individual defense budgets to “at least” 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024. Trump failed to win any support for his desire to further boost the number to 4 percent. Stoltenberg tried to smooth ruffled feathers once again by noting that eight NATO members already have committed to the 2 percent this year “and a majority of Allies have plans to do so.” Norway is not among them, but Prime Minister Erna Solberg staunchly defends her defense budget after claiming that Trump would neither run nor ruin the NATO meeting. Norway will also be hosting NATO’s biggest exercise ever this autumn, Trident Juncture, which will involve 40,000 soldiers from 30 countries.
Defense spending has been Trump’s major gripe, as he repeatedly complains that the US has been paying more than its fair share for years. Many agree, with Stoltenberg repeating himself that bigger defense budgets among all NATO members are needed: “This is about fairness, this is about our credibility and, above all, this is about our security in a more unpredictable world.”
NATO heads of state and government also met with leaders from non-member countries including Finland and Sweden and with the European Union Wednesday evening. On Thursday they were meeting with the presidents of Georgia and Ukraine, with the summit set to conclude with a meeting of all nations contributing to NATO operations in Afghanistan.
While Trump was being described by a commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Thursday morning as “a badly behaved child whom the grown-ups in the room had to tolerate,” Solberg was among those relieved that the US ended up going along with all the NATO measures. She also claimed the mood “wasn’t so bad” at the actual summit session Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s not like the US has any plans to pull out (of NATO),” Solberg told newspaper Aftenposten. “We’ve actually seen increased military presence in Europe in recent years.” She noted that Trump was “clear” in his desire that European countries increase their defense budgets, “but he was also clear that NATO is an importnat organization and that he has strong ties to Europe.”
There’s still concern that NATO’s values remain under pressure. Increasingly authoritarian leaders in member nations like Turkey, Hungary and Poland are raising concern along with Trump’s unpredictability. “Trump doesn’t like only being one of 29 leaders (within NATO) and having to listen to the opinions of lots of small countries,” political commentator Frank Rossavik wrote in Aftenposten Thursday. Other national leaders accustomed to unchallenged power may feel the same. Rossavik noted that other member countries now at least see the need to take on more responsibility.