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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Trump hails ‘much stronger’ Nato after allies commit to spending hike

Washington's commitment to military alliance 'very strong' after pledges, US president says

Nato alliance leaders stand for a group photograph ahead of a working dinner in Brussels.  Brendan Smialowski / AFP Photo
Nato alliance leaders stand for a group photograph ahead of a working dinner in Brussels.  Brendan Smialowski / AFP Photo

US President Donald Trump on Thursday reaffirmed Washington’s “very strong” commitment to Nato after the military alliance's summit in Brussels was upended by an emergency meeting to address his demand that members quickly meet defence spending targets.

Speaking at an impromptu news conference, Mr Trump said Nato was now “very unified” and that it was “unnecessary” for the US to withdraw from the alliance that turns 70 years next year. The allies had agreed to sharply increase their defence spending, he said.

His comment that there had been “tremendous progress” reassured European allies he has censured for days about their contributions and “unfair” treatment of the US, Nato’s biggest donor.

Mr Trump hinted at the emergency meeting that the US would go it alone if other Nato members did not immediately pledge to meet the target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence - a level agreed upon in 2014 and to be met by 2024.

However there was no direct threat to leave the organisation, according to a Nato official briefed on the meeting. “This rumour that he threatened to leave Nato is totally bogus," the source said.

Another official said there was expectation that Mr Trump would bash the organisation in his press conference. High-level Nato officials were expecting the worst, with the alliance appearing to be in crisis just minutes before he took to the stage, and were caught by surprise when the president spoke warmly about the alliance.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that member states had committed to "redouble their efforts" at the emergency meeting and that "new money has come in", without providing specifics. He said the 29 members had a "frank discussion" that had created a "new sense of urgency" because of the US president's hard line on defence spending.

Mr Stoltenberg summoned the meeting after Mr Trump publicly called on alliance members to double their defence budgets from 2 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. In a tweet on Thursday, Mr Trump said that members must immediately increase their spending to 2 per cent which then “must ultimately go to 4%!”

The American leader hailed the meeting as a personal victory, saying that his demands had cajoled the other Nato members into action.

“The people have stepped up today like they have never stepped up before. We had a really great meeting today. Everybody in that room ... agreed to pay more, and they agreed to pay it more quickly,” Mr Trump said.

“Yesterday, I let them know that I was extremely unhappy with what was happening," he said. "Now we have a strong Nato. Much stronger than it was two days ago.”

The president offered little in terms of specifics about who had offered what, or who had changed their plans on defence spending. He even said that some countries would have to go back for approval from their parliaments before any increase would be confirmed.

French President Emmanuel Macron disputed the version of his American counterpart, saying the alliance had again committed to reaching the 2 per cent threshold by 2024 but no more above that. He said the meeting with Mr Trump had been cordial.

"I read the 140-character messages," Mr Macron said. "The debates took a different tone. They were frank but there was no finger-pointing or lack of respect."

Echoing Mr Trump’s remarks, he said the alliance was “much stronger” after the summit.

After days of Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s attempts to portray a united Nato, Mr Trump uttered words to that effect for the first time since arriving in Brussels. He said the alliance was now “very unified, very strong, no problem”.

"The US were not treated fairly, but now we are. I believe in Nato," Mr Trump told reporters after a fraught Nato summit.

"The US commitment to Nato remains very strong," Mr Trump added, "mainly because (of) the additional money they've committed."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that "there was a clear commitment to Nato by all" at the emergency meeting.

Mr Trump has condemned European allies for leaving the US with an “unfair” deal that sees it pay 3.5 per cent of its GDP towards defence spending, while others paid as little as one per cent.

Asked what he would do other members failed to meet the 2 per cent target, the US president said he was confident they would keep their promise.

“They will. They all made commitments,” he said. “It will be over a relatively short period of years.”

Speaking about his call for a doubling the target to 4 per cent, he said he remained committed to that figure.

“We will go to much higher than two per cent in the future.”

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The billionaire property magnate had criticised European allies over their contributions on social media in the build-up to the summit and in front of cameras when he arrived in the Belgian capital. But, by all accounts, he was more restrained and friendly at the formal dinner hosted at the Art and History Museum at the Cinquantenaire, despite tweeting “what good is Nato” just minutes before his arrival.

But on Wednesday he signed a Nato declaration with its 28 other member states that reaffirmed the alliance’s existing commitments. The 23-page document took aim at Russia, condemning its actions in Crimea and Ukraine. It also committed the alliance to a new initiative to improve its readiness against Russian aggression in Europe: a force of 30 land battalions, 30 aircraft squadrons and 30 warships that can be assembled within 30 days.

The second day of the summit was focused on the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, with members states expected to recommit their resources. Nato also insisted that Georgia would one day join the alliance, in spite of separatist ambitions in sections of the country.

"Georgia will become a member of Nato," Mr Stoltenberg said.

Mr Trump was scheduled to hold talks with the leaders of Ukraine, Georgia, Romania and Azerbaijan in Brussels before travelling to Britain for his first official visit as US president and then to Helsinki, where he has controversially organised a one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin just days after the Nato summit. As he left for Brussels, he said that it would be his “easiest” stop.

At his press conference, he called Mr Putin a “competitor” and not an “enemy”. He said he would discuss Syria, the conflict in Ukraine and Moscow’s alleged meddling in the US presidential election.

"All I can do is say 'did you?' and 'don't do it again'. He may deny," Mr Trump said.

The American leader has garnered a reputation for tweeting insults or even his decisions from Air Force One after leaving his foreign gatherings. But will he do the same after departing from Brussels?

“That’s not me. I’m very consistent. I’m a very stable genius,” he joked.