Biden Says Trump Is Jeopardizing NATO, Even as Allies’ Defense Spending Continues to Climb

By Patrick Goodenough | December 3, 2019 | 5:08am EST
 President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive at Stansted near London on Monday for this week's NATO summit. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive at Stansted near London on Monday for this week's NATO summit. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

( – Former Vice President and current Democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden is warning that a second term for President Trump could mean the end of NATO. But as the alliance meets in London this week, it does so with significantly boosted defense spending, thanks largely to Trump’s cajoling.

And if any of the 29 leaders is threatening NATO’s unity as it marks its 70th anniversary it is not Trump but Turkey’s Islamist president, whose recent military offensive in northeastern Syria and decision to buy a Russian missile defense system attracted condemnation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ahead of the summit, Biden suggested that Trump was putting the alliance in jeopardy.

“American leadership has served as the backbone of NATO since its founding – until President Trump,” Biden said in a statement Monday. “His abdication of America’s traditional leadership role could not come at a more critical moment for the alliance.”

It is a theme Biden has repeated on the campaign trail.

“The truth of the matter is if he’s elected for eight years, it will fundamentally change who we are as a nation,” he said in Portland, Ore. last month. “In addition to that, there will be no NATO.”

Campaigning in Iowa and Illinois on Monday, Biden told reporters and fundraiser attendees that the president treats NATO like a “protection racket” – not the first time he has made the comment.

Running for the White House in 2016, Trump called NATO “obsolete” and said some of its members were “getting a free ride,” with the disproportionate U.S. burden “unfair to our taxpayers and to our people.”

Attending his first NATO summit in 2017, Trump scolded allies for not spending enough on their own defense. At the time only five of the then 28 members had met the alliance’s benchmark of spending two percent of their national GDP on defense.

Fast forward two years: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced on Friday that the number had risen to nine and, more importantly, that the amount of defense spending of NATO European members plus Canada has risen by $130 billion since 2016.

The pattern of increased defense spending began before Trump took office – in 2015, a development attributed to concerns about Russian aggression after President Vladimir Putin annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula the previous year.

But the annual growth accelerated under Trump: 1.7 percent real change in defense expenditure in 2015, 3.0 percent in 2016, 5.7 percent in 2017, 4.4 percent in 2018, and an estimated 4.6 percent in 2019.

(Graphic: NATO)
(Graphic: NATO)

Stoltenberg has on more than one occasion attributed the increased spending to pressure from Trump.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did so too on Monday.

“The good news is since President Trump took office, about $130 billion more has been spent by those countries in support of their own security and the collective security of the transatlantic alliance,” he said in Louisville, Ky. before heading to London to join the president.

“Another $350 or $450 billion will be spent in the upcoming years, all due to President Trump’s focus on wanting every country to be a full and fair participant, to share the burden of our collective defense.”

“It has not been a fair situation for us because we paid far too much,” Trump told reporters as he prepared to fly to London. “Secretary Stoltenberg said that we were responsible, I was responsible, for getting over $130 billion extra from other countries that we protect, that weren’t paying.”

“They were delinquent,” he said. “So, we’ll be talking about that. We’ll be talking about a lot of things.”

Turkey tensions

Among those other topics on the agenda, Turkey’s acquisition of a Russian S-400 missile defense system is likely to feature prominently.

The alliance says the Russian system is incompatible with NATO systems, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has defied the U.S. and others over the issue.

Another Erdogan policy causing dismay among NATO allies was the military incursion into Syria in October, designed to push back U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters who Ankara views as terrorists.

In a much-discussed interview last month, French President Emmanuel Macron – whose country has special forces troops deployed in northern Syria as part of the anti-ISIS mission – called the offensive “crazy” and said Erdogan should not expect support from NATO allies after having carried it out.

Erdogan hit back on Friday, saying the French leader’s criticism of the military operation reflected a “sick and shallow understanding,” and saying that it wasn’t up to Macron to say whether or not Turkey should be a member of NATO. (France summoned the Turkish ambassador to complain.)

Among other issues expected to be raised at the summit, Trump wants to drive home the need to push back against China’s increasing influence in the West, and Macron hopes to get support for France’s counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel.

NATO training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and Russia’s continuing intervention in Ukraine will also likely be discussed, along with NATO plans to recognize space as its fifth operational domain (alongside air, sea, land and cyber).

Asked during a press conference Friday about current differences among allies, Stoltenberg recalled previous times when the alliance was deeply divided – over the 1956 Suez crisis and the 2003 Iraq War.

“But the strength of NATO is that despite these disagreements, we have always been able to unite around our core responsibility: one for all and all for one,” he said. “Sending a clear message to any potential adversary that if one ally is attacked, it will trigger a response from the whole alliance.”


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