Trump tensions peak ahead of NATO summit

Strains in the U.S.-European relationship are peaking just as President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE prepares to face allies at this month’s critical NATO summit.

Trump has repeatedly complained that members aren’t meeting the alliance’s defense spending goal. But the meeting comes at a difficult time, with the broader U.S.-European relationship already under stress from Trump’s tariffs, his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and his overtures to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Those looming issues have raised fears of a replay of last month's contentious Group of Seven summit. The mood of the tense summit was embodied in a photo released by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office, which showed her staring down a cross-armed Trump.

“We’ll have a repeat of the G-7 with Trump going to the summit and likely complaining once again about allies not spending enough money on defense," said James Goldgeier, a professor of international relations at American University. "And doing it in a public way designed to basically heighten the notion that he seems to have that NATO is just another bad deal for the U.S.”

Since his presidential campaign, Trump has railed against NATO allies for what he sees as an unfair reliance on the United States to foot the bill for their defense.

Just eight of NATO's 29 members currently meet or are expected this year to meet the alliance’s goal of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense: the United States, United Kingdom, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Lithuania. 

That goal was set at the 2014 Wales summit, where allies agreed to meet the target by 2024. NATO’s secretary-general has said at least 15 allies will make the 2024 deadline.

Trump, though, wants allies to speed up their spending plans. He upped the ante recently in pointed letters to Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and leaders in Belgium and Norway, according to excerpts published Monday by The New York Times.

In the June letters, Trump hinted he may be considering a shift in U.S. military posture should the leaders not increase their defense spending.

“It will, however, become increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries do not share NATO’s collective security burden while American soldiers continue to sacrifice their lives overseas or come home gravely wounded,” Trump wrote to Merkel, according to the Times.

The Pentagon is conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the 35,000 troops deployed to Germany, as first reported Friday by The Washington Post. A Pentagon spokesman insisted to reporters Monday the review is routine and not in anticipation of a White House demand to withdraw troops.

The personal acrimony between Trump and Merkel, in particular, has appeared to grow in recent months, with the president tweeting recently that “the people of Germany are turning against their leadership.”

At the G-7, Trump reportedly tossed two pieces of Starburst candy to Merkel and said, “Here, Angela. Don’t say I never give you anything.”

Trump also rattled allies at the G-7 by saying Russia should be allowed back into the group. Russia was kicked out after annexing Crimea in 2014 in a move Western nations maintain was illegal.

Trump also reportedly disparaged NATO during the G-7 summit saying the alliance is “as bad as NAFTA,” the North American trade agreement he wants to renegotiate or rip up.

The increased tensions come after Trump went ahead with 25 percent tariffs on steel and 10 percent tariffs on aluminum from the European Union, Canada and Mexico. All have announced retaliatory tariffs.

Trump also bucked European allies when he decided to withdraw from the Iran deal, causing them to scramble to find ways to protect their businesses from U.S. sanctions in an effort to save the agreement.

The divisions prompted NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to warn in a recent op-ed in The Guardian that “nowhere is it written in stone that the transatlantic bond will always thrive.”

“That doesn’t, however, mean that its breakdown is inevitable,” he continued. “We can maintain it, and all the mutual benefits we derive from it.”

Trump’s first meeting with NATO leaders last summer was rocky. He declined to endorse the mutual defense provision known as Article 5, though he ended up doing so a month later under questions from the press. A video clip of Trump pushing aside the leader of NATO’s newest member, Montenegro, also went viral.

Expectations for this year’s summit are not high.

“I’m expecting it to be tense, but it’s in everyone’s interest that we get through this without any major incidents,” said Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

But despite the public animosity between Trump and European leaders, several experts said the day-to-day operation of the alliance has gone on smoothly.

U.S. troops continue to rotate through Eastern Europe and conduct exercises with their counterparts from Poland, the Baltic states and other NATO countries.

Congress is also on track to increase spending for the European Deterrence Initiative to $6.5 billion next year, in line with the Trump administration’s request. The fund was created in 2015 to reassure allies nervous about a resurgent Russia.

“Certainly at the head of the state level, it’s fraught with tension, but with an undercurrent of pragmatism, I would say, behind the scenes,” Coffey said of U.S.-European relations. “The relationship is healthier at the institutional level, so between foreign ministry and State Department, or ministry of defense and Department of Defense, or military-to-military.”

Still, some worry change is coming during next week’s trip to Europe.

During Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he agreed to cancel joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, calling them provocative and a waste of money.

NATO supporters are fearful of Trump doing the same to European military exercises at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is scheduled days after the NATO summit.

“If he does something similar to what he did in Singapore, then that would be a market change,” Goldgeier said, referring to the Korea summit.

With the NATO and Putin summits scheduled back-to-back, a group of leading Senate Democrats wrote to Trump urging him to remember who is a U.S. ally and who is an adversary.

The Monday letter was penned by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezMore oversight of America’s international media networks a good idea Pro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems Trump lowers refugee goal to 30,000, he must meet it MORE (D-N.J.), Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSchumer wants answers from Trump on eminent domain at border Trump AG pick: I won't be 'bullied' by anyone, including the president Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing MORE (D-Ill.), Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDems revive impeachment talk after latest Cohen bombshell Hillicon Valley: Senate panel subpoenas Roger Stone associate | Streaming giants hit with privacy complaints in Europe | FTC reportedly discussing record fine for Facebook | PayPal offering cash advances to unpaid federal workers Senate panel subpoenas Roger Stone associate Jerome Corsi MORE (D-Va.) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Energy: Pentagon report warns of climate threats to bases | Court halts offshore oil testing permits | Greens challenge federal drilling work during shutdown Overnight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pentagon warns of threat to bases from climate change MORE (D-R.I.).

“In addition to urging NATO allies to meet their commitments to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, working to boost NATO rapid mobility and readiness capacities, and addressing cyber threats and other evolving forms of hybrid warfare,” the senators wrote, “it is imperative that you make a strong statement of support for the democratic nations that make up the alliance and make clear that the United States stands with—not in opposition to—our oldest and closest allies.”

The letter highlighted the apprehension ahead of Trump's next summit.

Coffey, though, struck one hopeful note.

“I think expectations at this point are so low that we’ll probably come out the other end of the summit and say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t so bad after all,’ ” he said.