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Tensions, disputes roil NATO alliance meetings in London; Trump cancels a news conference

LONDON – President Donald Trump canceled a news conference at a NATO leaders’ meeting in London on Wednesday amid public infighting between some of the military alliance’s biggest member countries, including sharp exchanges with France’s leader Emmanuel Macron and biting comments aimed at Canada’s leader.

Taking questions after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “two-faced,” adding that he “called him out” on the fact that Canada is not spending 2% of its GDP on defense spending, as required by NATO guidelines. “I guess he’s not very happy about it,” Trump said.

Trump tweeted that he was calling off the news conference in London “because we did so many over the past two days.” But the timing was unusual and could be a further sign of the political strains that have come to the fore here. It also comes after Trudeau was shown in a video with other NATO leaders appearing to mock the U.S. president.

Amid the disagreements, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held a news conference in which he tried to talk up NATO unity, saying that the alliance “was the most successful in history because we’ve changed as the world has changed.”

Earlier in the day, Stoltenberg also rejected criticism from Macron that the military alliance is suffering from “brain death.” He dismissed complaints from Trump that member states are not boosting their NATO military budgets quickly enough and insisted that the organization is adapting to modern challenges. Trump has called it “obsolete.”

“NATO is agile, NATO is active, NATO is adapting,” Stoltenberg said before chairing a meeting of the alliance’s members at a luxury hotel and golf resort outside London.

“As long as we are able to deliver substance … then NATO proves once again that we are able to respond to a shifting security landscape, and that’s the best way to also provide unity of this alliance,” the Norwegian national said.

He emphasized several times during his news conference that “NATO is the only place where the U.S. and Europe and Canada meet every day.”

Still, the disputes and tension threatened to undermine the credibility of the 29-nation alliance as it marks its 70th anniversary. Trump and Macron clashed Tuesday over the French leader’s criticism of NATO. Macron said NATO needs “a wake-up call” and expressed dissatisfaction over a lack of U.S. leadership – comments that did not sit well with Trump but also cast him as the defender of an alliance he has repeatedly disparaged as “obsolete” and far too dependent on U.S. funding.

Trump described Macron’s remarks as “very nasty.”

The two leaders have diverged about how to ensure the Islamic State group does not regain a foothold in Syria after Turkey’s incursion against Syrian Kurds there, a move that caused U.S. troops in the area to move out of northeastern Syria.

In London, Trump held an unscheduled meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We pulled our soldiers out and took over the oil. We have soldiers where the oil is. And that’s the way I like it,” he said. “It was time for us to leave, and we left, and it’s been holding very nicely. So we’re very happy. We talked about that.”

Other NATO leaders and diplomats were at pains to project unity as they gathered for discussions on a range of security issues encompassing a resurgent Russia, China’s growing military and technological prowess, trade and climate policies, and the evolving threat from international terrorism, including the impact of Turkey’s actions in Syria.

“If NATO has a motto, it is as Jens (Stoltenberg) says, one for all, and all for one,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in remarks opening the meetings, referring to Article 5, the NATO principle that if any one member is attacked, all will attempt to defend it.

But Trump’s behavior and rhetoric took center stage.

Not least because in video footage recorded Tuesday night during a NATO reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, several world leaders were caught on camera apparently discussing Trump, although he isn’t directly mentioned by name.

“He was late because he takes a 40-minute press conference off the top,” Trudeau can be heard saying in the video, an apparent reference to Trump’s long unscheduled Q&A session with journalists earlier Tuesday. Trudeau is seen standing in a huddle with Johnson, Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Britain’s Princess Anne – the queen’s daughter – is just visible behind Rutte’s left shoulder. 

Asked about the video, Johnson said it was “complete nonsense.” 

In a bid to help ease tensions, which accelerated after Turkey invaded Syria in October, NATO leaders agreed to “a forwarding-looking reflection process” to be led by Stoltenberg. While it was not immediately clear what that means, Stoltenberg said NATO would study ways “to further strengthen NATO’s political dimension.”

Yet analysts said that Trump’s lack of NATO enthusiasm is a problem. 

“There’s an assumption among leaders that, because NATO has survived these types of crises in the past, it will brush aside this latest scare,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign policy expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

“This would perhaps be true if France and Turkey were the only problems. However, they’re not. The issue is far bigger, and heralds from the U.S. – where an unenthusiastic president is unwilling to make commitments to, or work for the betterment, of western defense,” he added. “Macron, not unjustifiably, sees Trump as turning his back on Europe and wants NATO member states, and the EU, to wake up to this reality.”

Macron stood by his comments, saying Wednesday that they had sparked vital discussions. “It’s allowed us to raise fundamental debates,” he said. In particular, “how to build sustainable peace in Europe.” He added that “(NATO) debates should be about other things than budgets and finances,” an apparent reference to Trump’s persistent gripes about many NATO members who haven’t met the alliance’s defense spending goals, currently 2% of GDP. Just nine members are expected to hit that level by the end of the year. The U.S. spends more on NATO than any other country.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tensions, disputes roil NATO alliance meetings in London; Trump cancels news conference

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