The White House confirmed Tuesday that President Donald Trump will join fellow NATO leaders for a key May summit in Brussels, as the US administration seeks to quash questions about Trump’s support for the alliance.
The Trump administration has been scrambling to reaffirm its commitment to Washington’s military alliances — including NATO — after the Republican billionaire called into question their usefulness during the presidential race.
News that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would skip a NATO meeting in April — but travel to Russia the same month — did little to allay concerns.
By confirming Trump’s participation in the May 25 summit, the US administration — the leading partner in the North Atlantic alliance — moved to reset the narrative.
“The president looks forward to meeting with his NATO counterparts to reaffirm our strong commitment to NATO, and to discuss issues critical to the alliance, especially allied responsibility-sharing and NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism,” said a White House statement.
Likewise, NATO officials struck a forward-looking note, playing down the apparent snub by Tillerson and instead confirming the summit date and announcing that its Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg — who was in Washington this week — would return to the US capital for talks with the president ahead of the leaders’ summit.
The White House said the April 12 meeting would be a chance for Trump and Stoltenberg to “talk about how to strengthen the alliance to cope with challenges to national and international security.”
The summit itself, NATO said, would focus on “the alliance’s role in the fight against terrorism, and the importance of increased defense spending and fairer burden-sharing” — language that appeared to acknowledge Trump’s repeated complaint that US allies are not paying their way.
Just last week, after meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House, Trump took to Twitter to claim that Germany owes “vast sums of money to NATO and the United States.”
Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former Marine general, has declared that the United States fully supports NATO. Tillerson traveled last week to Asia to reaffirm ties with allies Japan and South Korea.
But regardless of Trump’s attendance at the May summit, his top diplomat’s absence from its foreign ministers’ meeting on April 5 and 6 will be noted with concern, especially by newer East European members on its exposed east flank.
Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council think tank, wrote on Twitter that the decision “feeds growing allied doubts about US commitments,” saying the April foreign ministers’ meeting is crucial preparation for the full NATO summit that Washington “can’t miss.”
Stoltenberg — who was attending meetings at the Pentagon this week ahead of a conference of the coalition fighting the Islamic State group — refused to respond to questions on Tillerson’s decision, while NATO officials said it was up to allies to determine their level of representation.
In Brussels, the United States will be represented by Tom Shannon, the highest ranking career diplomat in the State Department and Tillerson’s acting deputy — since almost two months in the job, Tillerson has yet to appoint a deputy or any assistant secretaries.
Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the decision for Tillerson to skip the Brussels meeting was not unprecedented, and that secretaries of state had missed the April foreign ministers meeting in 2003 and 1999.
Officials insisted Tillerson will in any case meet most of the foreign ministers from the 28-nation military alliance at Wednesday’s anti-IS coalition talks at the State Department.
Under Obama, the US worked with NATO to shore up support for the pro-western government in Kiev after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for a bloody uprising in eastern Ukraine.
Combined with economic sanctions, the deployment of more NATO troops from Western members to frontline Eastern allies in the Baltics and Poland was intended to send a signal to Moscow that further intervention would not be tolerated.
But during his successful 2016 presidential campaign, Trump struck a more emollient tone with Moscow, even expressing admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, while dismissing NATO as “obsolete.”