By David Meyer
July 12, 2018

President Donald Trump’s displeasure with the U.S.’s military allies over their relatively low defense spending is no secret. But now, according to media reports, Trump has threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO,) or to change its pivotal role in the alliance, over the matter.

In a closed-doors meeting at the two-day NATO summit in Brussels, Trump is said to have thrown a “tantrum” over the issue, threatening that the U.S. would go it alone on defense issues if the other NATO members—most of whom are European—do not immediately increase military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. That’s according to Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported Trump as saying “I’ll do my own thing” if spending is not immediately increased.

It is not clear whether he was talking about a partial or full withdrawal from NATO, or whether he was serious about the threat. But the other members were rattled enough to convene an emergency meeting on the spending issue.

Trump then held an impromptu press conference. According to CNN, he said: “I told people that I would be very unhappy if they didn’t up their commitments very substantially. Because The United States has been paying a tremendous amount—probably 90% of the cost of NATO…Everyone has agreed to substantially up their commitment. They’re going to up it at levels that they never thought of before…Now we’re very happy and we have a very, very powerful, very very strong NATO.”

The president did not say whether reports of his withdrawal threat were accurate, but he did say he thought he could pull the U.S. out of NATO without congressional approval.

At the moment, NATO members are supposed to spend 2% of GDP on defense—a goal, not a requirement or a membership fee—but only eight of the alliance’s 29 members will do so this year. Trump wants the spending to go up to 4% of GDP, which is more than even the U.S. currently spends on defense.

Nonetheless, he has simultaneously asserted that the U.S. should pay less.

Trump has been unusually blunt—for a national leader—about the fact that NATO largely exists to provide a united front against Russia.

The alliance, which sees an attack on one member as an attack on all, was set up at the height of the Cold War, as a counterbalance to the Warsaw Pact between the Soviets and their satellite states. So threatening the integrity of NATO plays very well into the hands of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump will meet on Monday.

That said, the most recent major NATO deployments have been in support of U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

This article was updated as more details emerged.

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