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During the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, Donald Trump repeated a claim that he had succeeded in pushing NATO -- the military alliance that includes the United States and Europe -- to increase its efforts on counter-terrorism.
"About four months ago, I read on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that NATO is opening up a major terror division," Trump said Sept. 26, 2016. "And I think that's great … because we pay approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO. It's a lot of money to protect other people. But I'm all for NATO. But I said they have to focus on terror, also. And they're going to do that. … I'm sure I'm not going to get credit for it, but that was largely because of what I was saying and my criticism of NATO."
Trump’s claim is False. We’ll explain why.
What change at NATO is he referring to?
When we checked with experts on NATO and terrorism, several said the likeliest change that Trump would have been referring to was the creation of an assistant secretary general for intelligence and security to head a newly established Joint Intelligence and Security Division.
The new position was officially announced in a communiqué released on July 9, 2016, by member-state representatives at a summit in Warsaw, Poland.
Was this a major change?
Not really, experts said when we first investigated the claim.
"NATO members have been complaining about sharing of intelligence for generations," said Stephen M. Saideman, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Canada who had a fellowship on the U.S. Joint Staff at NATO in 2001. "Every year or two, there is a discussion about how to improve intel sharing." This change, he said, was "not that important."
Jorge Benitez, director of NATOSource at the Atlantic Council, agreed. "While the top position is new, it seems most of the staff will come from an internal reorganization of NATO bureaucracy, rather than new additions," he said. "This is because the summit communique describes this new NATO division as making ‘better use of existing personnel and resources.’ "
More to the point, Trump’s comment gives the impression that NATO hadn’t been responsive to terrorism until the new division was created. That’s not true at all.
NATO involvement in counterterrorism issued its first formal declaration on terrorism in 1980, and it became a significant issue for the alliance on Sept. 11, 2001, said Lisa Sawyer Samp, a senior fellow in the international security program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Indeed, Clinton brought this up in her response to what Trump said at the debate.
"NATO invoked Article 5, its collective defense provision, the day after the 9/11 attacks and has focused on dealing with this threat ever since, including most importantly by deploying troops for the past 12 years in Afghanistan," said Ivo H. Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs who previously served as Ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama.
At its peak, NATO and its partners sent about 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, Benitez said, and this year, there are still about 4,000 troops from NATO allies in Afghanistan.
"It is impossible to argue that NATO has not played an overwhelmingly important role in the war on terror," said Timothy Andrews Sayle, an assistant professor of modern global security at the University of Toronto.
It’s worth noting that, according to experts, NATO’s structure and role has made it an imperfect vehicle for counter-terrorism. "Allied warfare is exceptionally difficult and fraught with problems of coordination and compatibility," Sayle said. Intelligence sharing has been especially challenging -- a shortcoming that the new position was designed to ease.
NATO’s post-9/11 terrorism blueprint did undergo one major overhaul -- but that occurred in 2012, several years before Trump started running for president. The overhaul, as announced at a summit in Wales, states that "the Alliance strives at all times to remain aware of the evolving threat from terrorism; to ensure it has adequate capabilities to prevent, protect against, and respond to terrorist threats."
"So it took about a decade to update the initial post-9/11 framework for dealing with terrorism," said Matthew Fay, a defense policy analyst with the Niskanen Center.
Did Trump have anything to do with it?
This is where Trump’s statement goes off the rails. He said that NATO acted "largely" because of his concerns. But experts agree that nothing of the sort happened.
For starters, experts said, leaders of the NATO countries feel little warmth for Trump, suggesting that they wouldn’t do anything to bolster his prospects of becoming president.
"It is comical to suggest NATO would change its counterterrorism policy in response to anything Donald Trump has said about it over the course of his campaign," Fay said. "Like his claim that he was against the invasion of Iraq, this is another reflection of the Republican nominee living in a foreign policy world of his own creation." (We checked his position on the Iraq War separately here.)
Even more important are the structural obstacles -- namely, that an alliance as broad as NATO tends to take longer to get all its members to sign off on strategic changes.
"This is almost certainly just an odd coincidence," Sayle said. "The position would be the result of a very long slog by those who have favored the idea against those who may believe the alliance too large and diffuse to be effective – or safe – for sharing detailed intelligence."
Saideman agreed. "NATO never works fast on anything, and most of the major changes are timed to be announced at summits like the Warsaw Summit or smaller meetings where defense ministers and foreign ministers meet."
Finally, NATO rejected the notion that Trump had anything to do with the change in a statement to Politico.
Trump said, "NATO is opening up a major terror division. ... I'm sure I'm not going to get credit for it, but that was largely because of what I was saying and my criticism of NATO."
The change he’s apparently referring to -- the creation of a new senior post and division for coordinating intelligence sharing -- is just the most recent incremental change in how the alliance handles counter-terrorism, a topic it has addressed, in big ways and small, for more than 30 years. There is no evidence that the change was made in response to Trump’s complaints about the alliance. Experts said such changes typically require a longer gestation period so that all member nations can get on board. We rate Trump’s statement False.http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/sep/27/donald-trump/donald-trump-wrong-again-about-nato-increasing-ter/
Washington Post, presidential debate transcript, Sept. 26, 2016
PolitiFact, "Donald Trump mischaracterizes NATO change and his role in it," Aug. 16, 2016
Donald Trump, prepared remarks for speech in Youngstown, Ohio, Aug. 15, 2016
Donald Trump, tweet, June 6, 2016
NATO, "Warsaw Summit Communiqué," July 9, 2016
NATO, "The Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism," Feb. 16, 2016
NATO, "NATO’s policy guidelines on counter-terrorism," May 21, 2012
NATO, "NATO’S Defence Against Terrorism Program," 2014
NATO, "Countering terrorism," Dec. 3, 2015
Wall Street Journal, "NATO Moving to Create New Intelligence Chief Post," June 3, 2016
PolitiFact, "Trying to pin down what Donald Trump thinks about abortion, the minimum wage, taxes, and U.S. debt," May 11, 2016
Email interview with Laicie Heeley, fellow at the Stimson Center, Aug. 16, 2016
Email interview with Matthew Fay, defense policy analyst with the Niskanen Center, Aug. 15, 2016
Email interview with Timothy Andrews Sayle, assistant professor of modern global security at the University of Toronto, Aug. 15, 2016
Email interview with Ivo H. Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Aug. 15, 2016
Email interview with Lisa Sawyer Samp, senior fellow in the international security program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Aug. 15, 2016
Email interview with Jorge Benitez, director of NATOSource at the Atlantic Council, Aug. 15, 2016
Email interview with Stephen M. Saideman, professor of international affairs at Carleton University, Aug. 15, 2016
Email interview with Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Aug. 16, 2016
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