As a candidate, Donald Trump called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete.” But as he stood next to British Prime Minister Theresa May Friday, she told the world that he was “100% behind” the alliance.
Speaking before the first joint press conference of the Trump Administration, the British leader said she had obtained Trump’s reassurance that he stands behind NATO, despite his earlier comments.
She also stated her opposition to any weakening of Russian sanctions until the Minsk agreement for a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine is upheld, getting ahead of Trump’s upcoming call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We are united in our recognition of NATO as the bulwark of our collective defense and today we’ve reaffirmed our unshakable commitment to our alliance,” May said. “Mr. President, I think you said—confirmed, that you are 100% behind NATO. But we’re also discussing the importance of NATO continuing to ensure it is as equipped to fight terrorism and cyber-warfare as it is to fight more conventional forms of war.”
May’s comments appeared to successfully push the new President further than he intended in defending the alliance, providing the first test of Trump’s mettle on the international stage. Trump appeared to confirm May’s characterization of his beliefs during the press conference.
During the campaign and the transition, Trump frequently maligned the Cold War-era alliance as “obsolete,” saying that it is unprepared for the contemporary environment, including terrorism. Trump’s opening remarks were silent on the alliance, as he paid tribute to “this most special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K.
Trump’s comments have been met by criticism and fears, particularly in Eastern Europe, where American support is viewed as vital to prevent Russian aggression.
The call with Putin comes as Trump has promised to try to reboot the U.S. relationship with Russia after relations deteriorated under President Obama amid the invasion of Crimea, Russian support for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and Russian hacking related to the 2016 election. The Obama Administration instituted several sets of sanctions on elements of the Russian government and people close to Putin in retaliation.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior aide to Trump, said on Fox that lifting the sanctions against Russia “is under consideration” for the call.
But May signaled that the U.K. would oppose such a move as long as Russia doesn’t abide by the ceasefire agreement.
“We have, as far as the U.K. is concerned on sanctions for Russia in relation to their activities in the Ukraine, we have been very clear that we want to see the Minsk Agreement fully implemented,” she said. “We believe the sanctions should continue until we see that Minsk Agreement fully implemented and we’ve been continuing to argue that inside the European Union.”
In an apparent nod to Trump’s comments critical of European nations that have not met NATO’s 2 percent of GDP target for defense spending, May said she would continue to encourage her fellow leaders to spend to meet that mark.
“I’ve agreed to continue on my efforts to encourage my fellow European leaders to deliver on their commitments to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense so that the burden is more fairly shared,” she said.