Updated at 5:35 p.m. ET
President Trump on Wednesday sharply reversed his 2016 campaign stance on NATO. "I said it was obsolete; it's no longer obsolete," Trump declared, after a meeting at the White House with the alliance's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg.
Trump had criticized NATO members for failing to spend enough on their defense, and for what he wrongly said was the North Atlantic alliance's failure to join the fight against terrorism. "I complained about that a long time ago," Trump said, "and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism."
In a joint news conference, Stoltenberg said that NATO members increased their individual defense spending by 3.8 percent, or $10 billion, last year. He also reminded Trump that after the attacks on Sept. 11, NATO for the first time invoked Article 5, the collective defense clause, that says an attack on one member is a attack on all, and came to the aid of the U.S.
Stoltenberg said NATO troops have been fighting "shoulder to shoulder" with U.S. troops in Afghanistan for many years, and that "more than 1,000 have paid the ultimate price." He said that in NATO, "America has the best friends and the best allies in the world."
Trump said he had a phone conversation on Tuesday night with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who he said "wants to do the right thing" and help the U.S. deal with North Korea. Trump said the two discussed trade, and that Trump told him, "The way you're going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea." If China does not help, Trump said, the U.S. will "go it alone," which he said "means going it with lots of other nations."
He also said he has "absolutely no doubt we did the right thing" in attacking Syria with cruise missiles after the Syrian chemical attack last week. Trump called Syrian President Bashar Assad "a butcher." In response to a question, he said, "It's certainly possible" that Syria carried out the attack without its ally Russia's knowledge, but added, "I think it's probably unlikely."
Trump repeated his belief that the world "is a mess," but said by the time he finishes in office, "It's going to be a lot better place to live." But for now, he said, "It's nasty."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised the issue of defense spending late last month at a NATO meeting in Brussels.
"As President Trump has made clear," Tillerson said, "it is no longer sustainable for the U.S. to maintain a disproportionate share of NATO's defense expenditures."
Each NATO country has pledged to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on its own defense by 2024. Only a handful of alliance members meet that target now. U.S. defense spending accounts for somewhat over 3 percent of its GDP. Germany spends only about 1.2 percent of its GDP on its defense.
After a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March, Trump complained that "Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!"
NATO's secretary general says defense spending is only part of the picture, though.
"We need many different tools to stabilize our neighborhood," Stoltenberg said last month. "It's not either development or security. It's development and security."
Trump's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year would boost U.S. military spending by 10 percent, while making deep cuts in development and foreign aid.
Likewise, Trump wants to cut by half the number of refugees the U.S. takes in. He's criticized Merkel for Germany's welcoming attitude toward refugees.
For all his questions about NATO, Trump looks forward to adding a new member to the alliance. The tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro has been approved to join NATO and is expected to take part in an alliance meeting next month.
White House officials note that Montenegro already spends relatively more on its own defense than most other NATO countries — 1.7 percent of its GDP.
Russia is strongly opposed to any Western tilt by Montenegro and its Balkan neighbors. White House officials say they're concerned by possible Russian meddling in Montenegro's election last October.
Trump had previously pushed for improved ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Trump has been cooler towards Moscow since last week's chemical weapons attack carried out by Russia's longtime ally, Syria.
"Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person," the president said this week in an interview with the Fox Business Network. "I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind."
Aides say Russia's conduct has only "reinforced" Trump's commitment to working with NATO.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump has been meeting at the White House today with the secretary general of NATO. On the campaign trail, Trump questioned the modern-day relevance of the military alliance between Western powers. It was, after all, formed almost 70 years ago in response to the former Soviet Union. But White House officials say in today's meeting, the president planned to take a different tone, reaffirming the U.S.'s ironclad commitment to NATO.
Now for more, NPR's Scott Horsley joins us from the White House. And Scott, officials say that the president is now firmly committed to NATO, but he does have some reservations, right? What are they?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Money, Audie. Trump often describes the U.S. as being taken advantage of by other countries, and he puts the NATO alliance in that category. He complains a lot of other NATO countries aren't spending enough on their own defense, relying instead on the U.S. to pick up the slack.
Now, previous presidents have also warned about that although usually more quietly and diplomatically. Trump's been about as diplomatic as a debt collector. He tweeted after a recent meeting with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO and that the U.S. must be paid more. NATO countries have agreed to boost their individual defense spending to 2 percent of their respective economies by 2024. Right now only a handful of alliance members meet that target.
CORNISH: And so what's their response to this criticism from the U.S.?
HORSLEY: Well, there has been some pushback. For Germany, getting to 2 percent would mean almost doubling their defense spending. And while Merkel has pledged to get there eventually, she worries that ramping up too quickly could be wasteful. She and the NATO secretary general have also stressed that, you know, military spending's just one part of a broader picture that they think should also include spending on development and the treatment of refugees, for example.
Now, while President Trump has called for a 10 percent boost in defense spending here in the U.S. next year, he wants to slash spending on foreign aid and sharply curtail the number of refugees the U.S. takes in. So there are some lingering differences in the alliance, and some of that could be on display next month when the president makes his first foreign trip to a NATO summit in Brussels.
CORNISH: Scott, the president's warming to NATO is coming at a time when the relationship between the U.S. and specifically with Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be on the rocks. So is there some kind of connection there?
HORSLEY: Yeah, the bromance has definitely cooled. In fact Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who's in Moscow today, says U.S.-Russian relations have hit a low point. And White House officials say Russia's conduct is reinforcing Trump's support for NATO.
In an interview with the Fox Business Network, Trump complains that Putin's alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a mistake.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person. And I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world.
HORSLEY: The Trump administration itself has been taking a much harder line on Assad since last week's chemical weapons attack.
CORNISH: Also, Scott, in that same Fox interview, the president seemed to rule out any large-scale U.S. military push in Syria, right?
HORSLEY: It certainly sounded that way. He said, quote, "we're not going into Syria." Now, in fact we already have hundreds of special operators there assisting local fighters in battling ISIS, but he seems to be ruling out any big deployment of ground troops. At the same time, White House Spokesman Sean Spicer says the president is open to striking Syria from a distance if Assad tries again to use chemical weapons.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SEAN SPICER: Should they continue to use gas, especially against children and babies, all options remain on the table. But make no mistake about it. I think the president showed last Thursday night that he will use decisive, justified and proportional action to right wrongs.
HORSLEY: Now, the president is holding a news conference after his NATO meeting today, and that will be a chance for reporters to ask the president about last week's missile strike and what, if anything, comes next.
CORNISH: That's NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.
HORSLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.