During a telephone call with the NATO secretary general, Donald Trump acknowledged that the military alliance still has “enduring importance.”
The President – elects comment will no doubt come as a relief to some European leaders, but it does runs contrary to his previous remarks.
Trump raised alarm during his election campaign when he questioned whether the United States should automatically defend NATO allies in times of need. He said American support would depend on the willingness of those countries to pay their fair share for military protection.
Trump has also called NATO “obsolete” and said that the alliance was failing to fight terrorism.
N.A.T.O. is obsolete and must be changed to additionally focus on terrorism as well as some of the things it is currently focused on!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2016
A brief NATO statement released on Friday announced that US President-elect Donald Trump and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had both underlined the military alliance’s “enduring importance and discussed how NATO is adapting to the new security environment, including to counter the threat of terrorism” in what appears to have been an impromptu telephone conversation.
The statement added that “progress has been made on fairer burden-sharing,” while acknowledging that the United States spends far more on defense than its European allies. In addition, it said that the bloc’s leaders are looking forward to meeting with Trump during the NATO Summit in Brussels next year.
Later in the day, Stoltenberg said on his Twitter that he had had “a good talk” with Trump. Notably, the call was not listed on the schedule update released by Trump’s transition team on Friday morning, according to the Washington Post.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) November 18, 2016
The conversation is likely to come as welcome news to European leaders anxious about threats that Trump has made in the past to abandon the bloc. During his election campaign, Trump repeatedly said that the US should scrap its security agreements with Europe if its allies continue to shirk their fair share of the defense bill.
“Hey, NATO allies,” Trump wrote in a straightforward Facebook post in July, “If we are not reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting you, I will tell you – congratulations, you will be defending yourself.” The president-elect has also called NATO “obsolete” and questioned its relevance in the modern era.
Despite the volatile nature of some of Trump’s remarks, his statements have been taken more than seriously in European capitals. Shortly after the US election, NATO strategists on Stoltenberg’s staff prepared a secret memo discussing how to deal with a number of worst-case scenarios, including the US’ withdrawal from Europe’s security architecture.
Other leaders like European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker argued that Europe must now make arrangements to defend itself without relying so much on the US. Speaking in Berlin earlier in November, he championed the idea of establishing a European military, warning that the Americans’ commitment to defending Europe should not be viewed as eternal.
In London, which has benefited from a “special relationship” with Washington, Trump’s current stance on NATO caused as much concern as it did in other European capitals. According to the Times, UK officials drafted a paper listing all of Trump campaign’s statements on NATO, with suggestions on ways to respond.
However, the present developments suggest that a dramatic change in US-NATO relations is unlikely in the near future.
“Just as America’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance has endured for seven decades, that commitment will continue, including our pledge and our treaty obligation to defend every ally,” Obama said in Berlin on Thursday during his last presidential tour of Europe.
The outgoing president also said he has been encouraged “by the president-elect’s insistence that NATO is a commitment that does not change.”