More than 40 heads of government, including 29 member states and non-member partners are meeting in Brussels Wednesday for a two-day NATO summit amid mounting tensions between US President Donald Trump and European leaders.
The first biennial NATO summit at its new billion dollar headquarters opens with the alliance united over accusations that Russia is trying to destabilise the West with an offensive that includes cyber attacks, covert and not-so covert actions. But the de facto leader of the alliance has also caused disquiet with Trump announcing a surprise meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week.
The summit got off to a troubling start Wednesday, with Trump launching an extraordinary public tirade against Germany, accusing Berlin of becoming “a captive to Russia” for supporting a Baltic Sea gas pipeline deal with Russia.
“Everybody’s talking about it all over the world, they’re saying we’re paying you billions of dollars to protect you but you’re paying billions of dollars to Russia,” during what should have been an amicable breakfast meeting with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
“We’re protecting Germany, France and everybody… this has been going on for decades,” Trump said. “We’re not going to put up with it and it’s inappropriate.”
The US president has been consistently blasting NATO members over their failure to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic products on defence. A year ago, during his first visit to NATO’s Belgium headquarters, Trump initially declined to explicitly support the organisation’s defence agreement.
Anxieties over the damage Trump could do to the 69-year-old trans-Atlantic defence pact have not abated this time, with the US president once again highlighting his differences with Washington’s European allies while playing up his proximity to Putin.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday before setting off for Europe, Trump refused to get into details over a likely embrace of Putin. But his pre-departure assessment did not allay anxieties. “Well 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?”
Pomp, splendour and rancour
Nearly 70 years after its birth, NATO is once again in expansion mode, with the alliance set to invite Macedonia to start accession talks.
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.
No one knows for sure what Trump will say at NATO and diplomats also worry that European leaders might react, making a tense situation worse.
More to Russia than football tournament
Founded in 1949 to deter the Soviet threat, NATO is based on deep cooperation with the US, which provides for Europe’s security with its nuclear and conventional 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,” European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, said of Moscow’s highly regarded organisation of the soccer World Cup.
“No one should forget the essence of politics and the international relationship (with Russia),” said Tusk, who is expected to attend the NATO dinner.
Trade war and tweets
The US president, who as the commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest military power leads the alliance, 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 so 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.
Following the divisive Group of Seven 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.
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 percent spending goal.
Trump’s position however remains unclear. “He can nullify everything with a tweet,” another NATO diplomat said.