NATO leaders face a major threat to the credibility of their military alliance at their summit this week– not from traditional foe Russia, but from the head of their most powerful member, US President Donald Trump.
The gathering at NATO headquarters in Brussels, days before Trump meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, is shaping up to be the most difficult in years, analysts and officials told AFP.
Allies are braced for a barrage of invective from Trump for not spending enough on defence, and are apprehensive that his often sceptical tone on the alliance that has underpinned European security for 70 years might turn into outright hostility.
The 28 other NATO leaders fear a repeat of what happened at last month’s G7 summit, which ended in disarray when Trump abruptly rejected the closing statement.
“What Trump says will be decisive for the future of the alliance, but we do not know what he will say,” a diplomat from a NATO country said.
“It is a shadow that hangs like the sword of Damocles over the summit.”
Diplomats fear an acrimonious meeting could undermine efforts to show unity in the face of the growing threat on the alliance’s eastern flank — particularly with Trump set to meet Putin in Helsinki a few days later.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Friday told Bloomberg TV that the summit must show unity, warning that “our opponents would be delighted if there is a division in NATO”.
Trump’s own ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison made a similar plea for harmony during a call with reporters Thursday.
– ‘Schmucks’ –
But the mercurial tycoon set the stage for a fractious meeting by writing to around a dozen NATO allies to berate them for lagging on a 2014 pledge to try to spend two percent of GDP on defence by 2024.
Currently only three European countries hit the two percent target, and while alliance officials are hopeful that four more will join the list by the July 11-12 summit, it is unlikely to satisfy Trump.