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Trump signs NATO defense pledge while taking aim at allies

(First row LtoR) German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, US President Donald Trump, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (second row LtoR) Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Poland's President Andrzej Duda, French President Emmanuel Macron (third row) Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama, Czech Republic President Milos Zeman and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez watch a helicopter fly-past while they pose for a family picture ahead of the opening ceremony of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on July 11, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL AND AFP PHOTO / LUDOVIC MARINLUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images
LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
President Trump and European leaders watched a helicopter during a group photo in Brussels on Wednesday.

BRUSSELS — President Trump escalated his campaign of criticism against European allies Wednesday, accusing Germany of being “captive to Russia” and demanding all NATO members double their military spending targets.

On the first of two days of meetings with NATO leaders, Trump stopped short of any substantive breaks with the alliance, reaching agreement on a plan to improve military readiness and signing on to a joint statement that emphasized burden-sharing and harshly criticized Russia.

But coming a few days before he is to meet President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Trump’s critical stance toward the allies intensified attention on longstanding concerns by the United States about the willingness of Europe to shoulder its share of the financial burden for NATO. Trump again demanded the allies all meet their commitment to raise their military budgets to 2 percent of their economic output by 2024, but then further stepped up the pressure by saying they should make it 4 percent.

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More broadly, his performance, leavened at times by a more reassuring tone, left his fellow leaders struggling anew to judge whether he was posturing to win a better deal for the United States, moving to weaken institutions at the heart of the post-World War II order, or both.

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Trump was primed for confrontation before the gathering was even called to order in a large glass-and-steel NATO headquarters building that he has complained looks overly lavish. At a breakfast with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, Trump suggested that he had come to Brussels as a virtual pariah among allies — and was perfectly happy to be seen that way.

“I think the secretary general likes Trump,” he said, alluding to allies having to boost military spending in response to his pressure tactics. “He may be the only one, but that’s OK with me.”

Trump spent the next several few hours practically ensuring it. He laid into Germany for not spending more on its military while becoming increasingly dependent on Russia for its energy needs. His criticism was based on Germany’s deal to import natural gas from Russia via a new pipeline.

He dismissed as paltry — “a very small step,” the president said — the increases that NATO member countries have made in their military budgets in part because of his repeated lectures on the issue, eschewing a victory lap his advisers had encouraged him to take in favor of a sharp slap at allies.

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“Frankly, many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent, as far as I’m concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them,” Trump said, mischaracterizing how the commitments for NATO military spending work. “This has gone on for many presidents, but no other president brought it up like I bring it up.

“Something has to be done,” he added.

His comments came as Trump’s own ties to Russia are under scrutiny and as he is waging a spreading trade war that has ensnared allies — including NATO members — as well as foes and competitors such as China. His approach has fueled concern among his critics at home and abroad that he is intent on deconstructing the postwar order and replacing it with an “America First” breed of transactional diplomacy.

At the same time, Trump’s aggressive pressure tactics have already yielded more military spending by NATO allies and a sharper focus on the issue of unbalanced burden-sharing within NATO that vexed Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him.

Behind closed doors, Trump suggested that NATO allies increase their military budgets to 4 percent of their economies — a steep increase that is inconceivable for many member countries. Later, he took to Twitter to demand that member countries get to 2 percent “IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025.”

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“What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy?” the president wrote. “Why are there only 5 out of 29 countries that have met their commitment? The US is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade.”

The United States spent about 3.6 percent of its gross domestic product on the military last year.

Unlike at the Group of 7 meeting in Quebec last month, Trump did not refuse to sign the declaration negotiated among officials of the member nations, although it was a mark of how much uncertainty he has created that his agreement to the basic statement of principles and goals was not a foregone conclusion.

The declaration said NATO countries “strongly condemn Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, which we do not and will not recognize.”

Stoltenberg said of the pledge, ‘‘At the end of the day, we all agree that North America and Europe are safer together.’’

The first day of the summit meeting also illustrated the ways in which Trump’s foreign policy approach matched up with his domestic political strategy. Attacking allies over trade and their willingness to pay their share of military costs has played well with his political base.

The populist core of his coalition is fueled in part by anger over what his supporters consider unfair treatment of the United States on matters of trade, immigration, and international affairs.

“He feels it’s playing well with his base, fueling this sense of grievance against allies and trading partners, which is how he got elected,” Alexander Vershbow, a former NATO deputy secretary general, said in an interview.

“The danger,” Vershbow said, “is that he’s turning at least his base, and maybe other Americans, against NATO and against US global leadership by falsely defining it as a protection racket where we haven’t been paid enough by the protectees, rather than as a mutually beneficial alliance that has kept peace and expanded the frontiers of democracy.”

Trump’s condemnation of Germany also highlighted his determination to turn the tables on his critics, at a distance if not in person.

By pointing out the close connections between Germany and Russia on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and the degree to which they depend on each other financially, Trump was borrowing a page from his critics who suggest that because of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election on his behalf, he is beholden to Putin. It was a way of implying that it is Germany’s leader, not he, who is too compromised to be able to effectively counter the Russian president.

“Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia,” Trump said to Stoltenberg, as aides on both the US and NATO side of a long table shifted in their seats. Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, grimaced. US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison looked up at the ceiling.

“We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against,” he continued.

‘‘So explain that. And it can’t be explained, and you know that.’’

In a face-to-face meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany later in the day on the sideline of the summit meeting, Trump was more conciliatory, saying the two had a “very, very good relationship.” But earlier, Merkel had reacted sharply to the president’s talk, saying that she had firsthand experience of living under Soviet domination and that Germany made its own decisions.

Across the Atlantic, Trump’s performance drew howls of criticism from Democrats and an implicit rebuke from the Republican-led Congress, which overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting NATO without debate.

Trump will have more NATO meetings on Thursday. Following that, he will travel to England to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is struggling to keep her government from splintering.

Then the president plans to spend the weekend at one of his golf clubs in Scotland. Finally, he will head to Helsinki for a summit with Putin.