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Politics NATO officials try to reassure Trump administration is committed to alliance

Video screens display images of US President-Elect Donald Trump during the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax on Friday, November 18, 2016.

Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

President-elect Donald Trump has reaffirmed the "enduring value of the partnership between NATO and the United States" in a phone call with the Western military alliance's top official – but both he and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also resolved to make sure member countries spend enough on defence.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials are holding up this conversation as evidence the incoming Trump administration remains committed to a 67-year-old alliance that the Republican president-elect called "obsolete" months before his election.

Mr. Trump, however, has not abandoned his determination to ensure all 28 members of the alliance are devoting enough to military spending. All NATO member countries have pledged to spend 2 per cent of their annual economic output on defence.

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The Republican politician is clearly targeting some Western European nations, such as France and Germany, but the fact remains that Canada is also a laggard by some measures. Canada spends about 1 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product on the military. Only about five NATO members spend at or above the 2 per cent target.

"The message I took away from the call is they had good solid discussions and they both share this concern about the need for countries throughout the alliance to put their money where their mouth is," said Rose Gottemoeller, deputy secretary general at NATO. She is a U.S. appointee.

The pledge to commit 2 per cent of annual economic output to defence spending is not a NATO treaty commitment. But the Article 5 NATO accord to come to the defence of an attack on any member is a signed commitment.

Current U.S. President Barack Obama has also prodded allies to do more, raising the matter in an address to the Canadian House of Commons as recently as June.

Ms. Gottemoeller said she thinks allies including Canada have gotten the message. She said capital spending – purchases of new equipment – rather than just annual operations – also counts. "In 2016 we're seeing a rise of 3 per cent in defence spending across the alliance," she said, adding this figure is excluding U.S. military expenditures.

A top NATO general who criticized Mr. Trump's dismissal of the Western military alliance in the months leading up to the U.S. presidential vote now says the president-elect's comments may merely be campaign hyperbole and he's waiting for clearer direction from the incoming U.S. administration.

Back in June, General Petr Pavel denounced Mr. Trump for characterizing NATO as "obsolete," calling the comments "a grave mistake" that "played to the cards of our opponents" and would please Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Like all America's allies today, Gen. Pavel is now choosing his words carefully about a Trump administration and expressing interest in seeing more detailed ideas from the president-elect. The NATO alliance, formed to counter Soviet expansionism and prevent a revival of militarism, has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for nearly seven decades.

"We witness different kinds of statements during election periods [that] are not materialized after," Gen. Pavel, chair of NATO's military committee, said in an interview at the Halifax International Security Forum, an annual gathering of 70 countries on foreign affairs and defence matters.

"We all understand we have to distinguish pre-election period from post-election," the Czech army officer said. "In that sense, we are eagerly waiting, in NATO, for the first contact from the president-elect – and of course his team.

"Once the [Trump] team is in place, once the policies are identified and well-articulated, only then can we start talking about some concerns – if there are any."

Mr. Trump's numerous and sometimes contradictory comments about NATO have left Western allies nervous about his commitment to the military alliance, particularly given his stated admiration for Mr. Putin. "It's possible that we're going to have to let NATO go," he said in April. "When we're paying and nobody else is really paying, a couple of other countries are but nobody else is really paying, you feel like the jerk."

The Baltic states, still nervous about Russian expansionism in the wake of Mr. Putin's illegal takeover of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014, don't see NATO as obsolete.

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Speaking to the British Broadcasting Corporation Friday, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius warned that Russia may test NATO in the weeks before Mr. Trump becomes U.S. president – not only in the Baltics but also in Syria – particularly because the president-elect may not see Russia as a threat.

"Russia is not a superpower, it's a super problem," Mr. Linkevicius said.

NATO's Gen. Pavel said the Baltic countries are justified in their concerns about Russian expansionism given their location, but he does not foresee Mr. Putin testing the alliance over the next couple of months.

"I personally wouldn't believe that Russia would go that far – trying to test NATO' s cohesion and solidarity in this period because it wouldn't serve Russian objectives and purposes."

However, he said one source of "serious concern" for NATO is Russia's recent move to place cutting-edge Iskander missiles in its Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, adjoining Lithuania and Poland. These missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and hitting targets of up to 500 kilometres away.

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