President Donald Trump arrived at Nato’s annual summit Wednesday nursing grievances on defence spending and trade and jabbing at his European counterparts, threatening to upend the meeting of allies and further erode transatlantic unity.
Trump openly questioned the value of the generations-old alliance ahead of the meeting and linked US spending for Europe’s defence with America’s trade deficit with the world’s largest trading bloc.
“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,” Trump said Tuesday in a tweet just before landing in Brussels. “Just doesn’t work!”
He said of Nato at a Montana political rally last week, “I don’t know how much protection we get.”
The combative rhetoric signalled that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit may follow the trajectory of last month’s Group of Seven meeting in Canada. Trump aired his gripes about trade with Canada before travelling to the G-7, and dramatically withdrew his name from the summit’s negotiated communique to protest critical comments by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the meeting.
A group of former foreign ministers including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote Trump on Monday to express worry for Nato.
“We are gravely concerned about the deteriorating relationship between the United States and its Western allies,” the 16 officials, members of the Aspen Ministers Forum, said in their letter. “This week, you can move beyond recent signs of acrimony and reaffirm the health and common purpose of the Atlantic alliance.”
Eye on Putin
After a series of meetings with Nato leaders on Wednesday and Thursday, Trump will travel to the U.K. to meet Prime Minister Theresa May. He will hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16.
In a sign of how frayed the US-Nato alliance has become, Trump told reporters Tuesday that his meeting with Putin may be easier than his discussions with May and other Nato leaders.
While European leaders have been reluctant to respond in kind to Trump’s verbal attacks, there are signs they are tired of the president’s regular haranguing over military spending and trade.
European Council President Donald Tusk questioned whether Trump is fully aware of who America’s true allies are, saying the US president should look to Europe rather than Russia.
“Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all, you do not have that many,” Tusk said Tuesday after signing a joint declaration deepening the ties between the European Union and Nato.
The European Union has imposed tariffs on about $3.3 billion worth of American goods in retaliation for new US duties on steel and aluminium imports that Trump announced earlier this year.
Article 5 Commitment
It’s unclear whether Trump will act on his grievances to impair the Nato alliance. During his presidential campaign and since taking office, Trump has occasionally mused about ending or scaling back US participation in Nato or withdrawing US troops stationed in Europe, though administration officials have said such moves are not under consideration.
Speaking at last year’s summit, Trump drew criticism for not publicly reaffirming the US commitment to Article 5, which stipulates that Nato countries must come to the aid of an ally under attack. The president has since said he is committed to Article 5.
But in recent letters to several Nato leaders, Trump criticized them for not meeting targets for spending on their own defence and hinted he was ready to make changes to US policy toward the alliance.
“It will become increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries continue to fail to meet our shared collective security commitments,” Trump said in a letter addressed to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg seen by Bloomberg News.
Administration officials have tried to smooth over the president’s aggressive language toward Nato. They say Trump is fully dedicated to the alliance and pointed to defence spending increases over the past two years.
“Every one of our allies -- 100 per cent -- is increasing defence spending,” Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US Ambassador to Nato, told reporters last week. “And so that is something that we will talk about in an achievement, but also that we need to do more.”
2 Per cent Goal
In 2014, Nato members pledged to spend at least 2 per cent of economic output on defence by 2024. Only fiveNato members -- the U.K., Estonia, Poland and Greece, as well as the US -- were forecast to have met the two per cent target in 2017. Estimated 2017 defence spending as a percentage of GDP was 1.2 per cent for Germany, Europe’s biggest economy.
Trump regularly melds the issue of security spending with his grievances over trade imbalances with Europe. Those concerns--and Trump’s threat to slap tariffs on imports of European cars--form an ominous backdrop to the summit.
“We protect Europe (which is good) at great financial loss, and then get unfairly clobbered on Trade. Change is Coming!” Trump said on Twitter in June in posts that specifically called out Germany.
Trump risks harming the alliance by linking his trade gripes to military defence, said Michael Desch, director of the International Security Center at the University of Notre Dame.
“It seems to me that those things are apples and oranges,” he said.