Another source of tension has been Trump’s decision to withdraw most U.S. troops from Syria, which took European officials by surprise. This was followed up with a Trump-administration demand that the Europeans stay to deal with the aftermath. One European official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the issue, told The Atlantic that when Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan made this expectation clear at a conference in Munich in February, the Europeans pushed back, saying: We’re in together, and we’re out together. Trump ultimately opted to leave some 400 U.S. troops in the theater.
Trump has been particularly focused on the idea that the U.S. bears an unfair share of the burden to protect Europe—an argument that resonated with his core voters in the 2016 presidential campaign and is part of his broader complaint that the U.S. had been exploited in trade pacts and in a host of dealings with other nations. Europeans have actually been stepping up defense spending since the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2015, although Trump has taken credit for some of the increases, with Stoltenberg’s encouragement. Still, Trump has continued to insist that the allies meet a defense-spending target they all said they’d aim for back in 2014—when each country committed to move toward spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, without specifying a timeline.
Germany has recently been a flash point in this debate, and its struggle shows why defense-spending increases are difficult even for a wealthy country. Vice President Pence met privately with German officials in Munich in February and pressed them to boost their country’s financial contribution to NATO. Trump-administration officials believe that Germany is wealthy enough to comply with the 2 percent goal.
When Pence made his case, his German counterparts balked, citing their own domestic politics, according to a White House official familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. And they made clear that it could be years before they were able to raise military-spending levels.
The German position was very much, “Thank you for what you’re doing. We need you to do more because our own domestic politics makes it impossible for us to get there,” the White House official said.
In an Oval Office meeting on Tuesday with Stoltenberg, the president returned to the same sore point: Germany. The country, he told reporters, is “not paying what they should be paying.”
Appearing at a NATO summit meeting in Brussels last year, Trump upbraided Germany for its natural-gas-pipeline deal with Russia. He tweeted: “What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy. Why are there only 5 out of 29 countries that have met their commitment? The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade.”