Irked by who knows what, he took to Twitter to return to familiar themes.
“First meeting – NATO. The U.S. is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them. Not fair to the U.S. taxpayer. On top of that we lose $151 Billion on Trade with the European Union. Charge us big Tariffs (& Barriers)!”
Less than an hour later Donald Tusk, president of the European Council (who represents the EU at international summits) fired back – unusually and undiplomatically getting personal.
At a signing ceremony of a new NATO-EU cooperation statement he said he wanted to “address president Trump directly, who for a long time now has been criticising Europe almost daily”.
And just to make sure the president heard his riposte, Tusk posted his comments word for word on Twitter.
“Dear @realDonaldTrump. US doesn’t have and won’t have a better ally than EU. We spend on defense much more than Russia and as much as China. I hope you have no doubt this is an investment in our security, which cannot be said with confidence about Russian & Chinese spending :-)”
The smiley face did not hide the irritation.
Unmollified by the emoji, Trump Tweeted 20 minutes later: “NATO countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS. Very Unfair!”
Then, possibly after a nap, he fired another shot.
“Many countries in NATO, which we are expected to defend, are not only short of their current commitment of 2% (which is low), but are also delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the U.S.?”
This is far from the first time Trump has blasted NATO, the defence pact born of a desire to protect the core of Western democracy. At its heart, it’s a promise of “one in all in”.
But often – and here again – Trump seems to resent that promise.
He harps on the fact that the US pays more on defence than his allies, as a proportion of GDP. He thinks they’re getting a free ride, and that defence pacts should be transactional.
Trump has also diverged from his allies on key defence policy such as the Iran nuclear deal.
And that’s not even mentioning the simmering trade war.
“I think he hates Europe … He has a visceral allergic reaction to Europe,” a senior EU official told Politico.
A German member of the European parliament, Christian Ehler, has called Trump “a gravedigger for the post-war order, which the United States itself has founded,”
Trump’s defenders and interpreters have spun his comments as businessman’s bluster. They maintain he has utmost respect for the alliance, he’s just trying to shake them up a bit, to get them to pay attention and pay up.
Anyway, NATO has been working to increase military spending in Europe for years. It was a major theme at the summit in 2014 in Cardiff, in the face of Russian aggression in the Ukraine.
When Putin’s Russia began shouldering arms and muscling up to its neighbours, NATO leaders realised they had to reorient their policies, tactics and equipment away from the arid lands of Afghanistan and the Middle East and back to Europe’s chilly eastern borders. And that was going to cost money.
They pushed member countries to ante up. Only three NATO members (the US, UK and Greece) spent 2 per cent or more of their GDP on defence in 2014, and this year they expect eight of 29 (adding Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania) will.
And the 2 per cent figure is only a rough estimation of what NATO really needs. Defence is more than dollars. A country, for example, could reach that figure by including spend on military pensions (one NATO insider told Fairfax he suspected several countries were including pensions to reach the target).
Yet other NATO members punch above their weight in the cyberwar realm – investing in geeks to defend infrastructure against cyber attacks, or ‘strategic communications’ units to defuse the potent threat of propaganda as the first step of a hybrid war.
But you could have the world’s best cyber war outfit for less than the cost of one new battleship.
And then there’s chemical warfare. The UK is reeling from the use of a Russian chemical weapon on its own soil – an attack that this week became a murder investigation.
Russia has done its best to disrupt the work of the international chemical weapons watchdog, using procedural tricks last month to try to disrupt an attempt to identify the culprits behind attacks in Syria and around the world.
Australia played a big part in the diplomatic game that thwarted Russia in this arena: more evidence that alliances are greater than spending big bucks on big guns.
Russia has not been this big a threat to other countries’ security, and the lives of their civilians, for a long time. And if NATO, a proxy for the Western alliance against authoritarianism, is fractured and bickering, then it loses its power to deter its opponents.
But the US president is not known for his appreciation of nuance. He wants a headline figure. A number. Something Tweetable in 280 characters or fewer. And preferably someone tough he can call a friend.
NATO worries that friend will be Putin, whom Trump is meeting in Helsinki next week.
“The real geopolitical problem is not when you have an unpredictable opponent or enemy or partner, the problem is if your closest friend is unpredictable,” Tusk said earlier this year.
“It’s not a joke now,” he added.
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age
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