WHITE HOUSE --- Cindy Saine at the State Department and Valeria Jegisman of VOA's Russian Service contributed to this report.
U.S. President Donald Trump is warming toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), praising the alliance and its leader Tuesday during meetings with its secretary-general.
"Tremendous progress has been made," Trump said of improved burden-sharing among the pact's 29 independent member countries, but stated that "Germany, honestly, is not paying their fair share."
Trump reiterated his concern that while America spends a lot of money to protect Europe, "they're taking advantage of us on trade."
Trump, alongside Jens Stoltenberg in front of the Oval Office fireplace, praised him for an excellent job running NATO.
"We get along really well," Trump said of the former Norwegian prime minister.
The president took credit for the turnaround of the alliance he had previously referred to as obsolete.
"As you know when I came it wasn't so good, and now, they're catching up" to the goal of members spending two percent of their gross domestic product on defense. "But I think it should be higher," added Trump.
Stoltenberg thanked the president for his "strong leadership on burden sharing," adding, "we have stepped up in our joint fight against terrorism and we are investing more."
Trump was asked by a reporter about Russia, the Cold War nemesis that led to the alliance's creation.
"I hope that it's not going to be a security threat. I think we'll get along with Russia," replied Trump, whose 2016 presidential campaign was the target of a two-year investigation by a special counsel for alleged ties to Moscow.
In a subsequent expanded meeting in the Cabinet Room, Stoltenberg, sitting across from Trump, stated that Russia is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, noting "NATO allies have supported the U.S. position on that strongly."
Since becoming president in 2017, Trump's threats to "do his own thing" if NATO states did not meet defense spending targets plunged the organization into crisis.
Only seven of the 29 member states reached the GDP spending commitment in 2018, but that is considered an improvement from previous years.
During Tuesday's expanded bilateral meeting, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton made note of the increased defense spending by NATO members.
"Now we have the common challenge of making sure it's spent efficiently," said Bolton.
NATO is officially marking its 70th anniversary in Washington this week. But there is a bit less pomp than might have been expected as alliance partners downgraded the celebration to a meeting of foreign ministers to avert the risk of further verbal attacks from the U.S. president.
NATO membership "remains an integral part of U.S. security strategy," a senior State Department official reassured reporters a few hours prior to Trump's meeting with Stoltenberg.
As foreign ministers of NATO gather in Washington, foreign policy analysts are emphasizing it is one of the most successful military alliances in history and still relevant, pointing to its ability to adapt in dealing with a resurgent Russia, managing the crisis on the south of NATO's flank, and new threats such as cybersecurity.
"NATO is adapting and allies are spending more on defense. And I think this administration is understanding more and more how critical NATO is to some of the challenges that it faces, including China," Mark Simakovsky of the Atlantic Council tells VOA. "So, in many ways, NATO is far from obsolete."
Value of alliance
Trump's comments, political upheaval in Europe — including the impending British exit from the European Union — and calls by some to kick Turkey out of NATO, can leave the impression, however, that the defense alliance is fracturing.
"I don't think that's the case. The alliance is strong," Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik tells VOA, pointing to increased political dialogues and military exercises among NATO's members, as well as more U.S. military equipment and troops being brought to Europe.
"You're not giving the money to somebody else. You're not putting it into a NATO budget somewhere, you're spending it on yourselves," said McCain Institute Director Kurt Volker, who formerly served as U.S. ambassador to NATO. "But it is a demonstration of your commitment to your own security, which then gives NATO the confidence that this is a country that we can help defend as well, because they are committed to defense of their own territory."
Others agree that defense spending is important, but they say the alliance is fundamentally about the members' ability to trust each other, and Trump has damaged that trust.
"When an American president questions the value of the alliance, our enemies in Moscow and Beijing are now questioning whether or not NATO would come to the defense of some smaller NATO nations that the president has criticized as maybe not worthy of NATO's defense," said Simakovsky, a former Europe/NATO chief of staff in the policy office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. "But I don't think at this summit the administration is going to be announcing any departure of the United States."
Brooking Institution's Robert Kagan is expressing concern that Trump's attitude toward the European Union and expressed hostility toward the defense alliance could bring more chaos to the continent.
"Think of Europe today as an unexploded bomb, its detonator intact and functional, its explosives still live. If this is an apt analogy, then Trump is a child with a hammer, gleefully and heedlessly pounding away. What could go wrong?" wrote Kagan in an upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs.