Donald Trump lands in Europe for NATO summit as anxious allies brace
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in Brussels ahead of the NATO Summit. (Reuters: Francois Lenoir)
What little difference a year makes. Mere moments before boarding Marine One en route to Brussels for the NATO Summit, US President Donald Trump made his feelings about the alliance clear — again.
“Frankly, it helps them a lot more than it helps us,” he told reporters.
“NATO has not treated us fairly but I think we’ll work something out. We pay far too much and they far too little,” he said, before adding: “But we will work it out and all countries will be happy”.
Mr Trump has repeatedly undercut the nearly 70-year-old alliance, as allies in Europe fret over what further damage can be done.
Paying Europe’s ‘fair share’
His central gripe concerns nations paying their “fair share” towards defence spending. Mr Trump wants the nations to contribute 2 per cent of gross domestic product by 2024.
While some nations have taken that request (or demand) seriously and vowed to stick their hands deeper into their pockets, European Council President Donald Tusk cautioned the President: “it is always worth knowing who is your strategic friend and who is your strategic problem”.
It’s hardly new territory for member states. At last year’s summit, the President refused to reiterate support for Article 5 — that an attack on one member will be met by a collective response by all — and left the NATO alliance shaky.
US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk at the the APEC summit last November. (Reuters: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin)
But members fear the President may go beyond rhetoric — particularly, with a pending summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
Asked whether Mr Putin is a friend or a foe, Mr Trump said, “I really can’t say right now” before calling Russia a “competitor”.
The world will be watching that summit too — and anxious to see, what, if any, deal is reached between the two leaders.
“Frankly, Putin may be the easiest [meeting] of them all. Who would think? Who would think?” Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump’s ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, was offering a slightly different spin — suggesting a positive summit in Brussels could help Mr Trump be tough with Mr Putin.
“He is going to have a strong and good summit of allies where we talk frankly, but we are together on the big issues and that’s a position of strength going to talk with Vladimir Putin,” the ambassador said.
Ms Hutchison expects Mr Trump to ask Mr Putin to stop sanctioning Russian acts of “hybrid warfare”.
Fraying relations in the EU
This will be the first leaders meeting at the new NATO headquarters now that the 4,200 staff have moved in and the computer system is finally working.
The building was 20 years in the making and cost a staggering $AU1.9 billion.
The meeting comes at a time of fraying relations across the European Union, so will anyone stand up to the US President?
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May arrives on the continent wounded by the high-profile resignations of two senior cabinet members and Brexiteers: David Davis and Boris Johnson.
While she survives, for now, her position among European leaders remains tenuous as the long-winded Brexit negotiations wear on.
Mr Trump weighed in on British politics too, calling the UK “in somewhat turmoil” before describing Boris Johnson as a “friend of mine”.
Mr Trump will make a stop in the UK after NATO — although he’ll be spending most of his time far from London, where thousands are expected to take to the streets in protest.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also enters the summit with a limp, after surviving her own leadership crisis about Germany and Europe’s response to migration.
She continues to face pressure from within her own party, which has undermined her position at the top of the pecking order in Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been somewhat of a European “Trump Whisperer” by pampering to his ego, but he too is suffering from falling popularity within France.
‘Appreciate your allies’
Each of the leaders know how difficult it can be to satisfy Mr Trump. Last month’s G7 meeting in Canada was considered all but an unmitigated disaster.
The President may come across the pond full of bravado but Mr Tusk issued this reminder: “Dear America, appreciate your allies — after all you don’t have that many”.
And after another trip abroad, Mr Trump may return home with even fewer.