Donald Trump may not like the New York Times, but he — or his White House team — keeps up with it. Two days ago, the NYT reported that Trump had spoken “repeatedly” about withdrawing the US from NATO. In a Pentagon speech earlier today that focused mainly on missile defense, Trump went out of his way to show his support for NATO — while needling the other members over their lack of contributions:
President Donald Trump said Thursday the United States is fully committed to NATO but repeated his insistence that other members pay more for their own security.
“We will be with NATO 100 percent, but as I told the countries, you have to step up and you have to pay,” Trump said in a speech at the Pentagon.
Trump didn’t exactly make nice with our European allies. He accused them of playing the US for “fools” as they failed to meet their security-funding commitments. That part of the relationship will come to an end, Trump promised:
On Thursday, Trump repeated his view that close allies had been taking advantage of the US security umbrella for decades and that it was his mission to stop that.
“We cannot be the fools for others. We cannot be. We don’t want to be called that. And I will tell you for many years behind your backs, that is what they were saying,” Trump said.
So yes, it’s not all sweetness and light from Trump to NATO, certainly. This is no different than his normal criticisms of NATO, however, and certainly not as bad as when he questioned the commitment to Article V during his campaign. It’s tough to say whether Trump would impulsively announce a withdrawal, but it seems unlikely, especially since Congress would almost certainly balk on a broad, bipartisan basis.
It’s not the first time that an American administration has made this an issue, either. Barack Obama complained about “free riders” in 2016, and five years earlier his Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued a specific warning to NATO shortly after his retirement in 2011:
The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.
Trump’s declaring that the time Gates predicted has arrived — at least for him. Trump’s efforts here might be in service to a “madman” strategy — keep NATO worried enough about it to finally act on its pledges, but not madman enough to encourage hostile action. His endorsement of NATO today echoes similar patterns of warnings and assurances that Trump has issued while pressing for better contributions. This part of the speech was oddly absent from the Paper of Record’s report, which focused more on Trump’s other themes, especially missile defense:
President Trump announced Thursday the results of a missile defense review that he said would update a decades-old system and protect the United States from emerging threats — adopting a Cold War stance while also promoting futuristic ambitions with his much-touted Space Force.
At the Pentagon, Mr. Trump said the strategy would help deter hostile states — including Iran, which he said “is a much different country” now than when he took office.
“Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place.”
In opening the forum, acting SecDef Patrick Shanahan emphasized the need for new systems and operations to meet the challenge of missile threats around the world. And that means going beyond defensive systems:
“Our nation does not seek adversaries, but we do not ignore them, either,” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Thursday, noting that a missile defense strategy requires offense.
Space is key to that missile defense strategy, Shanahan said Thursday, in an announcement that comes as Mr. Trump is working on plans for a “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the military.
The Trump administration recently completed its review of what it is describing as the United States’ first “major” and “comprehensive” review of the United States’ missile defense policies and capabilities since 2010. One senior administration official explained to reporters in a conference call Wednesday that a “significant change to the threat environment” has been seen in recent years.
“What the missile defense review responds to is an environment which our potential adversaries have been rapidly developing and fielding, a much more expanded range of new advance offensive missiles,” the senior administration told reporters. “Some of these missiles are capable of threatening the United States, threatening our allies, our partners.”
Including NATO, of course. They’re more focused on threats from “rogue states” than established nuclear states like Russia and China. Trump cited Iran explicitly in his speech, but CBS notes that no one wants to discuss North Korea’s status at this point. Instead, their White House sources would only say that the review addresses the “comprehensive environment” of threats to the US.
The full speech can be seen here, including brief introductory remarks from Shanahan and Vice President Mike Pence.