Wed, Jul 11, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Worried NATO partners wonder if Atlantic alliance can survive Trump

Europeans hope the president who disparages allies and praises autocrats is an aberration, but fear problems might run deeper

By Julian Borger  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

The words “We are allies” are emblazoned in two-foot yellow and white letters on fences around NATO headquarters in Brussels, in anticipation of today’s summit.

After nearly seven decades of the most successful alliance in world history, this sort of reminder should not be necessary. However, given the events of the past year and a half, there is little doubt about what this message is meant to say and to whom.

US President Donald Trump is to be in Brussels for the summit next week and he is showing every intention of disrupting any attempt at consensus and solidarity.

“I’ll tell NATO, you got to start paying your bills,” Trump told a wildly cheering crowd in Montana on Thursday last week.

The president pondered aloud about the value for the US in paying for the collective defense of Germany.

Trump said he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “You know Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you and it means a lot more to you than protecting us, because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.”

The denigration of NATO and the EU, long-standing US allies, has become about as common in the US president’s oratory as his praise for autocrats like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Trump is to meet in Helsinki on Monday next week.

“‘You know — President Putin is KGB’ and this and that,” Trump said, referencing criticism of his relationship with the Russian leader. “You know, Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people.”

US Permanent Representative to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson last week briefed journalists in an attempt to provide a more orthodox narrative, insisting that the alliance was firm and that the US would stand in solidarity with its Western partners in holding Russia to account for its actions in Ukraine, and its meddling in Western elections and the alleged use of nerve agent in the UK.

However, nobody knows what Trump will say in Brussels or Helsinki, or during his UK trip in between. As he demonstrated after last month’s G7 summit in Quebec, he can trigger a crisis in Western cohesion with just a few off-the-cuff jibes aimed at old allies.

US and EU officials have uniformly sought to play down the significance of Trump’s antics, insisting that the underlying sinews of the Atlantic alliance are strong. The implication is that Trump has come like a bolt from the blue and will eventually go, while the interlocking security institutions of the West and its common values will outlast him.

However, some Western leaders and senior officials are beginning to wonder whether this somewhat complacent assessment is still valid.

After all, Trump is not yelling into a void, they have said.

When he trashed NATO in Montana, thousands of people yelled their approval. He won the 2016 US presidential election and maintains a 90 percent approval rating among US Republicans, because he has tapped into a deeply buried reflex in US politics.

In that case, perhaps Trump is not the exception, an anomaly in transatlantic progress, the pessimists have argued. Maybe NATO and transatlanticism itself are the anomalies and US suspicion of and disengagement from Europe are the norm.

“What is on the table right now, in a sort of brutal way, is a real problem not created by President Trump and that will not vanish at the end of the term or terms of President Trump,” a senior European official said. “The transatlantic relationship that all of us around the table consider as a given — is not a given.”

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