NATO at 70: Bringing its values to the table?

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Rose Gottemoeller on Conflict Zone

Are talks between NATO and certain Middle East and Gulf states a human rights-free zone? Has it stood up for Europe as Trump claims that members owe the US money? DW asks NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller.

"Why do you refuse to answer the question?" DW's Tim Sebastian asked Rose Gottemoeller, NATO's deputy secretary general, as they discussed Donald Trump's claims that NATO allies have not spent enough on defense and owe the US for the shortfall.

Pressing the deputy NATO chief further, Sebastian asked if it was true that the US was not owed any money and that it was not spending more because allies were spending less, as a former US ambassador to NATO had said.

"It's true for every country across the alliance that they need to spend what it is in their interest to spend and that is on adequate, sufficient capability and capacity," Gottemoeller told Sebastian.

Two percent

The NATO deputy said it was "silly" to suggest falsehoods over the spending row were going uncorrected: "But let me say that in fact the defense investment pledge is acknowledged to be made up of several different components. Cash, yes indeed. But also contributions and capabilities. And those come in many many forms."

The investment pledge, agreed at a NATO summit in Wales in September 2014, said member states would stop defense budget cuts and "move towards" spending 2% of GDP on defense "within a decade."

While allies in Europe have increased their overall expenditure to a five-year high, according to NATO's annual report in 2018, only six countries other than the US met the 2% goal. Germany spent 1.23%.

"We need to do a lot more on military mobility, on our ability to reinforce and they [Germany] are putting in place a new mobility command in Ulm in Germany. A great example of how they are contributing to the alliance," said Gottemoeller.

Gottemoeller strongly rejected that NATO did not stand up for Europe over those contributions to collective defense: "Of course we stand up for Europe because Europe is us."

And over Trump's claims that Europe owes the US money for a shortfall on defense spending?

"We have been clear in telling it like it is," said Gottemoeller.

Trump has 'shaken things up'

Donald Trump's doubt over NATO's value to the US has raised questions about the reliability of the alliance's largest partner. Had Trump undermined trust in the alliance?

"Clearly Donald Trump has shaken things up. There's no question about it," Gottemoeller told Conflict Zone's Tim Sebastian.

"In his inimitable way he got everybody to pay attention to the necessity of putting more money into their defense budgets. That's a good thing."

Donald Trump on NATO: Top quotes

Trump on NATO: A war of words

Even before taking office, US President Donald Trump's relationship with NATO has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. He has disparaged the trans-Atlantic alliance, once describing it as "obsolete" and a relic of the Cold War. Here are Trump's most memorable quotes about the military alliance, even if they are at times false.

Donald Trump on NATO: Top quotes

'Days of the Soviet Union'

While on the campaign trail in 2016, Trump made clear that he saw NATO as a relic of the Cold War. "You know, we're dealing with NATO from the days of the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. We need to either transition into terror or we need something else." But his remarks didn't account for how the alliance backed the US well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially in Afghanistan.

Donald Trump on NATO: Top quotes

'Germany owes vast sums'

Trump has made defense spending his main talking point on NATO. But he has falsely accused member states of owing money to Washington, saying: "Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO, and the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany." The problem is NATO doesn't work like that. No money is owed to the alliance for defense or otherwise.

Donald Trump on NATO: Top quotes


Days before his inauguration, Trump caught NATO members off guard when he claimed the alliance was "obsolete" and threatened to withdraw support. "I said a long time ago that NATO had problems: Number one, it was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago." Months later, he retracted his statement, citing changes within the alliance. "Now they fight terrorism," he said.

Donald Trump on NATO: Top quotes

'Doesn't sound very smart'

Trump had tended to lump trade between US allies with how much Washington spends on defense. "We are spending a fortune on military in order to lose $800 billion (in trade losses). That doesn't sound very smart to me," Trump said. The problem is that while NATO members have agreed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, the alliance has nothing to do with international trade.

Donald Trump on NATO: Top quotes

'We are the schmucks'

During a 2018 rally in Montana, Trump hit out at European allies, saying: "They want (us) to protect against Russia, and yet they pay billions of dollars to Russia, and we're the schmucks paying for the whole thing." Trump was referring to Russia as Europe's primary source for oil and natural gas, but he created a false dichotomy between energy reliance and NATO's defense spending goal.

Donald Trump on NATO: Top quotes

Montenegro 'may get aggressive and congratulations, you're in World War III"

In an interview with Fox News, Trump was asked why the US should jump the defense of NATO ally Montenegro in the event of an attack. The president said he'd asked himself the same question, appearing undermine the military alliance's collective defense clause. Trump went on to describe Montenegrins as a "very strong" and "very aggressive," and that that aggression risked starting World War III.

But Trump's approach to NATO has been lamented by former US officials. Doug Lute, a former US ambassador to NATO, said it was "unprecedented. We're at the 70th anniversary [of NATO] but the first time where allies have doubted the commitment of the American president." William Burns, a career diplomat and former adviser to five US presidents, said that Trump's disregard for alliances, while China was on the rise and Russia resurgent, were "criminal."

Lawmakers in the US House of Representatives sent a message to Donald Trump in January by passing a bill that says no funds can be used to withdraw from NATO.

"I saw that as a great expression in Washington of bipartisan support for NATO ... NATO is well supported across both sides of the aisle. That's a great thing," said Gottemoeller.

"Actions speak louder than words. Since the president has come into office the United States is spending $40 billion more on the European reassurance initiative, putting more capability and capacity into Eastern Europe to help in our deterrence and defense tasks against Russia. So I see the reality."

Human rights

Turning to NATO's relations with certain Middle East and Gulf states with poor records on human rights, Sebastian asked the NATO deputy chief if its dialogues with those countries avoided addressing human rights.

"By no means because in fact when we work with all of those countries they have the opportunity of somewhat to pick and choose what we talk about but we always bring our values to the table," she told Sebastian.

Did this mean criticizing their records on human rights?

"It means working with them effectively," said Gottemoeller.

After pointing out this wasn't the same as criticism, Sebastian asked whether difficult questions on human rights were asked at all.

"Everything we do with them in a day-in, day-out basis is meant to build the recognition and the acceptance of those values in a kind of organic way. So of course the discussion can't take account of everything that is happening day-in, day-out in those countries but it does focus on building integrity."