Trump sets Nato agenda but attacks more bark than bite

US president’s broadside at Germany continues trend of antagonising allies

 German chancellor Angela Merkel, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, US president Donald Trump and British prime minister Theresa May at the Nato summit  in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, US president Donald Trump and British prime minister Theresa May at the Nato summit in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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Like it or not, and many Nato members are deeply uncomfortable about it, Donald Trump set the agenda for Nato’s summit in Brussels. He also threw a small diplomatic bomb into proceedings with his attack on Germany as a stooge of Russia.

The US president arrived here vociferously reiterating his demand that the US’s 28 fellow member states step up their financial commitments to defence to two per cent of economic output and to burden sharing in the alliance. The US could no longer continue to subsidise their defence.

That was and is happening, the organisation’s Norwegian secretary general Jens Stoltenberg insisted to journalists at a press conference on Wednesday evening.

After a period of decline in defence spending, all member states were now, in a period of increasing military tensions, increasing their commitments – eight have this year reached the two per cent commitment, and the majority were committed to doing so by 2024, he said.

“Nato is delivering,” he insisted.

Before discussing raising the target to four per cent, as the US president was loudly urging, let’s get to two per cent, he pleaded.

Stoltenberg said that the meeting had also agreed to start talks with Macedonia on membership, although he insisted that the Macedonians would still have to vote for its unpopular name change before it could do so. “It’s their choice,” he said.

And Nato plans to send a major training mission to Iraq.

On Wednesday night over dinner they discussed relations with Russia, with Stoltenberg maintaining there remains unanimous opposition to any recognition of its annexation of Crimea, and by implication to any relaxation in sanctions.

The leaders will want to hear assurances from Trump that he is not going to jeopardise that unanimity in his talks in Helsinki on Monday with Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s extraordinary broadside against Germany was seen by many observers here to suggest that the US president’s antagonising of allies is hardly just the accidental byproduct of his America First policy and his distrust of multilateralism wherever he finds it and – more a deliberate strategy.

Gas pipeline

His decision to make the Nord Stream 2 Russian gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea an issue for the summit will anger many member states. Tying security cooperation to commercial interests is strictly taboo in Nato – a first, some diplomats are saying.

Trump had already created a linkage between the issue and the steel tariffs he has imposed on Europe by suggesting he would drop the tariffs if Germany abandoned Nord Stream.

Although the US and some EU member states, including Poland, say they see the issue as a security matter – creating vulnerability from overdependence on Russian gas – supporters of the project such as the Germans, Finland, Sweden and Denmark see US objections as a crude trade ploy.

They say that the pipeline, being built alongside the existing Nord Stream 1 pipe, will increase Europe’s energy security by avoiding potential further cut-offs from the volatile Ukrainian route should the Russians again fall out with Kiev.

US energy giants are hoping to export surplus from the shale gas boom to Europe via liquified natural gas (LNG) on ships, and countries on the Baltic Sea have been constructing LNG port terminals to receive this new flow. Trump has previously openly promoted US gas at a July 2016 Warsaw meeting with leaders from Central and Eastern Europe.

Construction is currently blocked by deadlock on approval of the project by the EU, which has also proved controversial in Germany for some years, not least because of the involvement on the board of Nord Stream of former chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Stoltenberg desperately wants to keep the issue out of the summit and his pain was visible as he stood beside Trump while the latter launched into his attack on Germany. “There are different views on the Nord Stream pipeline, that’s well known,” he said. “But it’s not for Nato to decide, this is a national position.”

Observers of the Berlin political scene also note that Trump’s suggestion that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia” is a classic Trump dog whistle tactic, much like his support for claims about Barack Obama’s ancestry, playing to a small constituency in Germany that has always believed that Angela Merkel is a Russian agent. 

The claims are unlikely to do her any significant harm domestically or with allies in Nato, but may throw up enough dust to obscure the reality that the US leader will actually achieve precious little here.

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