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Donald Trump, critical of NATO, looms over body's 70th anniversary meeting

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Seventy years after it was formed to counter the Soviet Union, Russia has returned to the top of the agenda for NATO. But the alliance faces another, more unlikely problem: criticism from the U.S. president.

The 29-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization is celebrating its 70th anniversary with talks among foreign ministers Wednesday and Thursday in Washington, where, in a Cold War redux, the resurgent power of Russia will be the chief item.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the ministers will work “to make sure that NATO is around for the next 70 years” and take aim at Russia over its 2014 takeover of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

Pompeo told a congressional hearing he is hopeful “we will be able to announce another series of actions that we will jointly take together to push back against what Russia is doing there in Crimea.”

But if countering Russia is a familiar role for NATO, its new internal dynamics are not, with U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly suggesting that the allies are freeloaders.

The businessman-turned-president, who berated allies at a NATO summit last year at the group’s Brussels headquarters, is pressing member states to meet the alliance’s goal set in 2014 of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Trump has even derisively asked whether it is worth defending small NATO states such as Montenegro.

Pompeo said he will discuss spending and again pointed to Germany, which plans for defense spending well below 2 percent and declining by 2023. “When I talk to my counterparts, they will begin by saying, ‘America needs to do X and Y because Russia poses a threat,'” Pompeo told a forum of the conservative National Review magazine. “Then you ask them: ‘Well, that’s awesome. Tell me what you’re prepared to do.’ And they say: ‘It’s tough. Our voters just really don’t like to spend money on defense,” he said to laughter.

NATO leaders will hold an annual summit in December in London, but the 70th anniversary celebrations are notably low-key.

It marks a stark contrast with the 50th anniversary in 1999, which rattled Russia and sealed off Washington streets in a way that locals still talk about. Heads of state visited President Bill Clinton’s White House, new members the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were inducted, and leaders plotted the next moves in NATO’s bombing campaign in Serbia.

This year foreign ministers will be speaking at The Anthem, a hip new music venue booked for the occasion. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will meet Trump on Tuesday and deliver an address to Congress the following day.

NATO on Thursday extended Stoltenberg’s term by two years until late 2022. If he completes his term as the alliance’s top civilian, he will be the second-longest-serving NATO chief, after former Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Joseph Luns, who was in the job from October 1971 to May 1984.

Stoltenberg is popular with allies, particularly Trump, who credits him with helping increase European defense spending, diplomats have said.

Derek Chollet, who managed U.S. defense policy on NATO under former President Barack Obama, said he expects NATO members to present a “good news story” on the value of the alliance without the drama of a high-stakes summit.

“But the concern is Trump. There is a sort of tangerine cloud hanging over all of this,” said Chollet, executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “They are concerned that the founding member of the alliance has become the most unpredictable, and perhaps most unreliable.”

While the populist right has stepped up attacks on NATO, the alliance has long been a bane for the left, which plans to be out in force to protest the anniversary.

“NATO should have been retired rather than reprogrammed for domination in the 21st century,” said Joseph Gerson, disarmament coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers’ peace advocacy organization.

He said that, even if one does not empathize with President Vladimir Putin, it should have been expected that Russia would be “snapping back” in response to NATO’s expansion.

“Just think how concerned the U.S. is with a couple of Russian planes going to Venezuela,” he said. “We also want people to understand that NATO has become a global alliance in ways that have very little to do with the defense of Europe,” he said.

Indeed, Trump recently proposed bringing Brazil into the alliance as he welcomed the country’s new hard-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

And NATO has been engaged for 17 years in the war in Afghanistan — a mission unlikely to have been envisioned by NATO’s first secretary-general, Hastings Ismay, who famously said the alliance was designed to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.”

Chollet said that recent years have shown that Russia remains the core threat for NATO, although he said the alliance could also increasingly discuss the challenges from a fast-growing China.

“You ask yourself — how many partners do Russia and China have that are willing to work with them and defend them in the spirit of all for one, one for all?” he said.

“Despite its problems, NATO is a unique asset that has never really existed before in history and which the United States is lucky to have,” he said.