Brussels, Belgium – NATO’s 28 members on Thursday (May 25) assembled at the new headquarters building, which resembles a series of interconnected airplane hangars, to unveil two mementos that symbolize key elements of the treaty alliance: a chunk of the Berlin Wall and a twisted piece of steel from the north tower of the World Trade Center.
The section of the Wall commemorates the founding principles of NATO during the Cold War. The twisted steel commemorates Article 5, the commitment to mutual defense, invoked after the 9/11 attacks.
As the leaders marched slowly down a blue carpet, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who arrived late, walked toward the group and joined the lineup. Blue tarps were pulled off the two mementos, and the leaders paused in a line for photographs.
NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, took the podium and explained the symbolism of the Berlin Wall, saying it would remind NATO employees every day of the alliance’s purpose “NATO will always defend the value on which our alliance is founded,” he said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke next, in German, reflecting on the symbolism of the Wall, not just for the West but for Germans who lived on the eastern side during the Cold War. “With the end of the east-west conflict,” she said, “began a new phase, with new challenges.”
President Trump spoke next and lambasted NATO member countries directly for not meeting their financial commitments to the alliance and declined to reiterate US commitment to the alliance’s mutual defense pledge.
Ironically the President’s caustic remarks were delivered against a striking backdrop: the freshly unveiled 9/11 memorial, which marked the only time the NATO alliance invoked Article 5, triggering NATO’s participation in the war in Afghanistan.
During Trump’s remarks, which were fiercely critical of NATO members, the assembled leaders stole sidelong glances at each other. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, however stared straight ahead.
Following President Trump and Chancellor Merkel’s remarks at the NATO memorial ceremony, the leaders of NATO countries walked onto a three-tiered stage in the lobby of the new NATO headquarters to pose for their family photo.
President Trump stood at the front/lowest tier, in the center, alongside the NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg to his right and British Prime Minister Theresa May to his left.
Some of the leaders interacted with one another on stage, but not Trump. He stood silently, shifting his stance at moments and looking around.
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau said, “Everybody wave!” encouraging his counterparts to wave for the cameras. Some followed Trudeau’s command, but not Trump, who did not raise an arm.
Trump smiled for a brief moment, but otherwise kept a serious, perhaps even stern, expression on his face for the duration of the photo opportunity
When the photo event concluded, Stoltenberg helped show Trump the way off the stage. Merkel stayed on stage for a few minutes as other leaders, including French President Macron, came up to mingle with her. The traveling journalists did not see any leaders approach Trump or talk with him on his way out.
Transfer of NATO New HQ
The leaders including President Trump attended an outdoor ceremony to mark the transfer of NATO’s new headquarters building from the Belgian government to NATO. The ceremony took place on a large plaza outside the new headquarters.
The leaders took their seats in white chairs under a clear awning. A few of them put on sunglasses because of the bright sun, including Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, though Trump did not.
As they waited for the ceremony to begin, Trump chatted briefly with British Prime Minister May, who sat next to him to his left.
Belgian King Philippe and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg arrived and took their seats in the front row, next to Trump, as a military band performed.
As the band played, Trump leaned over to chat with May some more.
The prime minister of Belgium, Charles Michel, was the first speaker. Michel welcomed guests to the ceremony and referenced the attacks in Manchester to issue a call for unity.
Michel said all leaders have to work together to preserve security. He talked about the need for civility and security. He talked about NATO coming to the United States’ defense after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and how many citizens of NATO member states served in Afghanistan.
Michel said, “Our alliance has been strong for almost 70 years and these new headquarters are the symbol we need because I believe NATO can and will continue to make a difference.”
The next speaker was NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said of the new building: “This is a 21st century headquarters for a 21st century alliance.”
Stoltenberg also talked about tragedy striking on Sept. 11, 2001, and the world changing again. He talked about the fight against terrorism and NATO’s role bringing peace and not conflict. He said there has always been “one constant” since NATO’s founding: “Our unity.”
“Our alliance stands strong, united and resolute,” Stoltenberg said. Trump and the other leaders applauded.
At times during both Michel and Stoltenberg’s remarks, Trump crossed his arms and fidgeted slightly, looking around at the scene before him or staring down at his feet. Many of the other leaders sat still throughout.
After the two speeches, the leaders all stood at attention as uniformed military officers raised the 28 flags of NATO countries and trumpets played. There was a 29th flagpole, which was empty today but will soon fly the flag of Montenegro, which is soon becoming a NATO country.
The band played the NATO anthem, as the leaders remained standing. Trump stood still, watching attentively as the ceremony was conducted. He was the only male leader in the front row with his suit jacket unbuttoned.
The leaders then stepped into the plaza as six separate groups of military aircraft from different countries flew over the headquarters in formation.
The planes were Grippen F-16s from Belgium and Awac planes owned by NATO, which are one of NATO’s contributions to the anti-ISIS campaign. A final, seventh group included six jets leaving streaks of black, yellow and red smoke, to represent the Belgian flag.
Trump stood watching next to Stoltenberg and May, looking into the sky as Stoltenberg spoke in his ear, perhaps explaining the significance of the fly-over.
The ceremony concluded with the band playing the Belgian hymn.
The other leaders, including Trump, remained standing on the plaza as King Philippe and Stoltenberg exited and a band played an anthem. The leaders were then invited to proceed to a meeting in the conference center.
As the leaders dispersed, Trump walked out alone and did not talk with any other leaders, even as some others mingled with each other.