Trump horsewhips allies as confrontational NATO summit begins

US President Donald Trump looks on as he sits nex to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (C) and while Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (R) delivers a speech during a working dinner meeting at the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, 25 May 2017. [Pool/EPA]

To the pomp of brass bands and a fly-past of fighter jets, the NATO alliance holds a two-day summit starting today (11 July), looking stronger militarily than at any time since the Cold War, but also more divided than ever.

Though NATO has much to be triumphalist about as it stages its first biennial summit at its new billion dollar headquarters in Brussels, many leaders appear anxious as they face the alliance’s de-facto leader, Donald Trump, who brings with him tough talk on defence spending.

Accusations that Russia is trying to destabilise the West with cyber-attacks and covert action have laid the ground for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s biggest expansion for decades, backed by a surge in US defence spending in Europe.

The meeting brings together more than 40 heads of government including the 29 allies and non-member partners from Finland to Afghanistan, underlining the organisation’s reach.

NATO is set to expand further, inviting Macedonia to start accession talks and defying Russian warnings against enlarging the US-led bloc deeper into the Balkans.

End of Macedonia’s name dispute opens road to EU talks and NATO membership

Macedonia and Greece yesterday (12 June) resolved a nearly three-decade row by agreeing to the name Republic of North Macedonia, opening the road for the landlocked country to start EU accession talks and to join NATO.

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev …

But Trump’s comments about many countries not paying their way in the alliance in exchange for the US umbrella has put many leaders on the back foot.

Poisoning the well

“NATO has not treated us fairly … We pay far too much and they pay far too little,” Trump said as he left the White House on Tuesday for his trip to Europe, which will also take him to Britain and Finland, where he will meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Major risks apprehended over Trump’s Brussels, Helsinki visits

With a NATO summit in Brussels on 11-12 July and a tête-à-tête with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, this week will give Donald Trump a chance to elaborate on that surprising diplomatic doctrine, but only at the risk of further fueling tensions with the country’s already deeply unsettled allies.

Just before departing from his week-long trip, Trump said his upcoming meeting with Putin may be the easiest on his agenda.

“I have NATO, I have the UK, which is in somewhat turmoil, and I have Putin. Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think? Who would think?” Trump told reporters at the White House.

Asked if he views Putin as a friend or foe, the president said “I really can’t say right now” and instead characterised him as “a competitor.”

Carefully-choreographed sessions and the leaders’ dinner in a Brussels museum on Wednesday night are unlikely to mollify Trump, NATO diplomats say, as they found out to their dismay in May last year at a special dinner to welcome the president.

Back then, Trump spoke his mind, ignoring decorum and warning NATO allies that they owed “massive sums” and had to do more to stop terrorism.

Renewed purpose

No one knows for sure what Trump will say at NATO and diplomats worry that European leaders might react, making a tense situation worse.

But unlike his recent tweets in which he berated allies, Trump struck a more affable tone in person before boarding his flight, remarking that “we will work it out and all countries will be happy.”

Trump may seek to take credit for the increases in European spending that are now registering in government accounts.

NATO agreed in 2014 that each member would boost military spending to 2% of its gross domestic product by 2024. Cumulative expenditure by Europe and Canada has risen by almost $90 billion since 2015.

“Allies can take a little criticism if it comes with a recommitment to the US security guarantee, but if Trump threatens to withdraw from NATO, then that could be very difficult,” said a NATO diplomat involved in the preparations.

Founded in 1949 to deter the Soviet threat, NATO is based on deep cooperation with the United States, which provides for Europe’s security with its nuclear and conventional  military arsenals.

NATO has found renewed purpose since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, sending battalions to the Baltics and Poland to deter any potential Russian incursions.

“Russia’s image does not only depend on organising the football world championship,” said European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister.

“No one should forget the essence of politics and the international relationship (with Russia),” said Tusk, who is expected to attend the NATO dinner.

Tusk tells Trump: Appreciate your allies, you don’t have that many

“Europe is your best ally, please remember that,” Council President Donald Tusk said on Wednesday (10 July) in an indirect message to US president Donald Trump, who will attend a crucial NATO summit in Brussels this week and then meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Any other business?

But the US president has also indicated he has other issues he wants to discuss, including non-NATO business such as trade relations with Europe.

He has already imposed tariffs on EU steel and aluminium exports and is threatening to do the same on cars.

“We lose $151 Billion on Trade with the European Union. Charge us big Tariffs (& Barriers)!!” Trump tweeted, referring to the US trade deficit with the EU, although both the bloc and US government say the figure is lower when including services such as finance, where the United States has a surplus.

Upon arrival to Brussels, he tweeted: “The European Union makes it impossible for our farmers and workers and companies to do business in Europe (US has a $151 Billion trade deficit), and then they want us to happily defend them through NATO, and nicely pay for it. Just doesn’t work!”

Following a chaotic Group of Seven (G7) meeting in June, where Trump rejected the final summit statement, NATO envoys have left nothing to chance, negotiating the Brussels summit declaration meticulously days ahead and locking in policy decisions on Russia and Iraq.

US-Canada dispute escalates after tense G7, Europeans criticise Trump

The United States and Canada swung sharply on Sunday (10 June) toward a diplomatic and trade crisis as top White House advisers lashed out at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a day after US President Trump called him “very dishonest and weak.”

At least one senior White House official has signed off on the NATO summit statement, one NATO diplomat said, which will contain a commitment to the 2% spending goal.

But officials are mindful that Trump’s position remains unclear. “He can nullify everything with a tweet,” another NATO diplomat said.

New figures showed that only seven European NATO countries – Britain, Greece, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Lithuania and Romania – would reach the 2% spending target in 2018.

But NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that military spending had been rising in Europe since 2014 and that members were making efforts to meet the objective, particularly Germany, which is often singled out by Trump for criticism.

Europe’s biggest economy is on course to spend just 1.24% of GDP on defence in 2018.

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