Nato’s European leaders were left reeling after one of the most divisive summits in the organisation’s 69-year history, at which Donald Trump set a January deadline for them to increase defence spending and hinted that the US might quit the alliance if they failed to meet it.
While other Nato members treated his warnings as a bluff, they left the Brussels summit stunned at the end of two days of mayhem, almost all of it orchestrated by Trump.
In the final hours he again reduced the 29-member organisation, the most powerful military coalition in the world, to chaos. He turned up late for a meeting, ignored the issues on the table, demanded fresh talks and secured an emergency discussion on spending.
Afterwards, at a hastily convened press conference, Trump claimed he had emerged victorious, saying European leaders had caved in to his demands – something both the French and Germans later denied.
He said they had agreed to reach the Nato target of spending 2% of GDP on defence faster than previously planned, and he claimed financial commitments would increase beyond that in the future.
“I can you tell you that Nato now is a really a fine-tuned machine. People are paying money that they never paid before. They’re happy to do it. And the United States is being treated much more fairly,” he said.
But other European leaders, in particular the French president, Emmanuel Macron, flatly contradicted this, saying no extra rises had been agreed beyond those set out in a Nato communique published on Wednesday, which contained only a vague timetable of promises, basically the same as those that existed before the summit started.
“There is a communique that was published yesterday. It’s very detailed,” Macron said. “It confirms the goal of 2% by 2024. That’s all.”
Trump made ambiguous remarks hinting that the US could leave Nato unless other countries increased defence spending and apparently setting a deadline of January, which most of them would regard as totally impractical.
“He said they must raise spending by January 2019 or the United States would go it alone,” a source told Reuters.
But Macron denied that Trump’s words about the US going its own way should be interpreted as a threat to quit. “President Trump never at any moment, either in public or in private, threatened to withdraw from Nato,” Macron said.
Trump did not elaborate at the press conference about what his words meant but declined several opportunities to deny the interpretation that it was an ultimatum. He even added fuel to the fire when he said, in response to a question about whether he could withdraw the US from Nato without the approval of Congress, required under the US constitution: “I think I probably can, but that’s unnecessary.”
Nato membership is agreed by a treaty that would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate to overthrow. The US military regards Nato as indispensable.
Summing up, Trump claimed the summit had ended happily. “I let them know that I was extremely unhappy,” he said. “It all came together at the end. It was a little tough for a little while.”
Can Nato members meet Trump’s 4% defence spending target?
Donald Trump left the opening day of the Nato summit in Brussels in disarray on Wednesday after making a surprise demand for members to raise their defence spending to 4% of GDP.
Is the 4% target realistic?
The existing funding target – 2% of GDP – is only being met or exceeded by five of Nato’s 29 countries, according to newly published figures. They are: the US on 3.6%, Greece on 2.2%, Estonia 2.14%, the UK 2.10%, and Poland on 2%. France currently spends 1.8% and Germany 1.2%.
The escalating costs of defence are well known. To build an aircraft carrier, a 21st century fighter jet or a cyber unit capable of defeating Russian attacks is rising at a rate much faster than average inflation.
British defence secretary Gavin Williamson has identified a £20bn shortfall in funding over the next 10 years. Without that money, he will need to make further cuts in annual running costs. President Emmanuel Macron, who lopped €650m off the French defence budget last year and sacked his military chief for complaining about it, has promised to boost spending to 2% by 2025, five years earlier than Germany.
Where would the money come from?
Britain and France have global ambitions, but run budget deficits. That means any extra spending must come from extra borrowing, higher taxes or cuts to other departments.
As Trump has pointed out, Germany currently runs a budget surplus and could increase its defence spending to 2% – but doubling it to 4% would be a very long shot.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, described the summit as “very intense”. Trump repeatedly singled out Germany over the two days. The US spends 3.5% of GDP on defence, compared with Germany’s 1.2%.
Asked whether Trump had threatened to quit, Merkel said: “The US president demanded what has been discussed for months: that the burden-sharing should change.” She echoed Macron, saying there had been no change as a result of the emergency meeting.
The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, abandoned a session discussing moves towards Nato membership for Georgia, diplomatically sensitive because it sits on Russia’s flank, and beefing up Nato’s role in Afghanistan.
He cleared the room of all non-Nato leaders, from countries such as Georgia and Afghanistan, and held a closed session with Trump and the other 28 Nato leaders.
Stoltenberg said: “We had a very frank and open discussion … That discussion has made Nato stronger. It has created a new sense of urgency. A clear message from President Trump is having an impact.”
After Trump’s visit to the UK – he flew from Brussels straight to London – he will meet Vladimir Putin in Helsinki next week. The Russian leader can take satisfaction from the disarray inside Nato. One of the fears among Nato leaders is that Trump might make concessions to Putin just as he did when he met the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore last month.
Asked at his press conference about whether he might make concessions to Putin such as cutting military exercises in eastern Europe or recognising the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 , Trump was vague. He said the annexation had taken place on the watch of Barack Obama.