U.S. President Donald Trump said NATO leaders agreed Thursday to a big boost in defence spending after crisis talks in Brussels, but France's Emmanuel Macron appeared to contradict the US president.
Trump claimed victory after bitterly criticising key allies, notably Germany, for failing to pay their way at one of the most fractious summits in NATO's 70-year history.
People present said he had earlier warned he would "go it alone" if allies, notably Germany, did not make vast increases in their defence budgets for next year.
"I let them know that I was extremely unhappy," Trump said, but added that the talks ended on the best of terms: "It all came together at the end. It was a little tough for a little while."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called the summit "very intense", and other leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, played down the extent to which they had pledged to accelerate spending plans as fast as Trump wanted.
"He said they must raise spending by January 2019 or the United States would go it alone," one person said of the clash at NATO headquarters when Trump spoke in a debate that was meant to move to other matters after rows over spending on Wednesday, Reuters reported.
Macron on Thursday refuted media reports claiming that Trump threatened that the United States would withdraw from NATO.
"I do not ever discuss behind-the-scenes conversations. But President Trump has never said he may leave NATO, neither during bilateral, nor during multilateral negotiations," Macron said at a press conference which concluded the summit.
Since taking office in early 2017, Trump has withdrawn the United States from a number of major multilateral agreements, such as the Paris Agreement and Iran nuclear deal. Moreover, Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO as an obsolete organization and blasted EU allies over their failure to meet defense spending targets, prompting speculation that the US president might pull his country out of the military alliance. These speculations reached their peak during the Brussels summit.
On the first day of the summit, Trump lambasted his partners for not spending their fair share on defense and asked on Twitter: "What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy?" But by the time the summit concluded Thursday he was praising NATO as "very unified, very strong."
"Tremendous progress has been made, everyone's agreed to substantially up their commitment, they're going to up it at levels they've never thought of before," Trump told a press conference before leaving for a visit to Britain.
Trump blazed into the summit on Wednesday by demanding that allies reach their commitment to increase spending to two percent of GDP "immediately" -- instead of by 2024 as previously agreed. He then stunned allies by telling them to eventually double the figure to a punishing four percent.
But Macron disputed Trump's claims, saying that the joint statement the leaders had signed went no further than what had previously been agreed, apart from setting out how some countries plan to get there.
"The communique is clear: it reaffirms the commitment to two percent (of GDP)," said Macron, who was photographed smiling and sharing a hug with Trump on Wednesday despite recent tensions between the two.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took a more diplomatic approach on the spending row, saying that Trump was having an "impact" while refusing to confirm any increase beyond what was agreed in the statement.
"We understand this US president is very serious about defence spending and this is having an impact," Stoltenberg said. "Since President Trump was in Brussels last spring allies have added 41 billion extra for defence spending."
Despite that, Stoltenberg had been forced to call an extraordinary session of all 29 allies to discuss Trump's demands, in what officials said was one of the first of its kind at a NATO summit for a decade.
Apart from the US, only three NATO countries hit the two-percent target in 2017 -- Britain, Greece and Estonia -- but four more are expected to clear the threshold this year.
The summit came as transatlantic ties are already under strain due to US trade tariffs.