Less than a week after President Donald Trump rallied the world behind ending the violence in Syria, he will meet with the top civilian leader of NATO, an organization he criticized during the campaign as “obsolete.”
The top issues will still likely be how much allies are contributing when NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visits the White House for a bilateral meeting with Trump Wednesday. The two will also hold a joint press conference. While contributions will be the priority, issues pertaining to the Middle East, Syria, and the Islamic State will also be high on the agenda.
Just before his inauguration, Trump reiterated his view about NATO member countries not investing enough in their own defense. Under the agreement, member nations pledge to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. However, many fail to meet their obligations.
“This will be a big opportunity for the president to establish himself as the leader of NATO,” Alexander Vershbow, a former deputy secretary of NATO, told The Daily Signal. “Clearly the No. 1 issue will be defense spending.”
Next year, eight of NATO’s 28 member nations are projected to meet the 2 percent of GDP goal.
The previous goal was for each member nation to spend 3 percent on defense, which was determined in 1997. In 2006, that goal declined to 2 percent, Vershbow said.
A second priority will be addressing what the alliance can do in the Middle East, said Vershbow, who was a U.S. ambassador to Russia and South Korea under the George W. Bush administration, and ambassador to NATO during the Bill Clinton administration.
“For the sake of NATO’s future, it will have to focus on terrorism,” Vershbow said.
Vershbow noted the alliance has provided assistance in Afghanistan for the last 15 years. But, he said, NATO has provided only minimal training in Iraq and Jordan for those countries to be self-sufficient against the Islamic State. He said NATO is capable of doing more if asked.
Last week, Stoltenberg backed Trump’s strike against Syria and the government of dictator Bashar Assad. He stated: “NATO considers the use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security. NATO supports all international efforts aimed at achieving peace and a political solution in Syria.”
There could be limits on NATO’s role in Syria, Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal.
Spoehr said that NATO may not have a direct role in Syria. But, he said, member nations, as well as U.S. like-minded countries in the Middle East, would likely join the United States against the Assad regime.
Trump seems to have “evolved as a leader” on international affairs, Spoehr said, stepping away from a dismissive attitude toward NATO. That could be a result of listening to his Cabinet members, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“We don’t hear him talking about NATO as obsolete and freeloaders,” Spoehr said. “We have heard administrations talking for years about NATO members [paying their fair share]. None have been as forceful and Trump. It does seem we are seeing a change in trends.”
During an April 2016 campaign speech on foreign policy, Trump said:
In NATO, for instance, only four of 28 other member countries, besides America, are spending the minimum required 2 percent of GDP on defense. We have spent trillions of dollars over time—on planes, missiles, ships, equipment—building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia. The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense—and, if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.
When asked during a CNN town hall in March 2016, “Do you think the United States needs to rethink involvement in NATO?” Trump responded, “Yes, because it’s costing us too much money. And frankly, they have to put up more money. They’re going to have to put some up also. We’re paying disproportionately. It’s too much. And frankly, it’s a different world than it was when we originally conceived of the idea.”
Trump also told Bloomberg News during his presidential campaign, “NATO may be obsolete. NATO was set up a long time ago … We were a rich nation then. We had nothing but money. We had nothing but power, and you know, far more than we have today.” He continued that NATO “doesn’t really help us.”
Though his critics accused him of wanting to leave NATO, FactCheck.org stated that was not the case.