Donald Trump heads to Helsinki Sunday for a summit meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, leaving his NATO allies — including Britain — bruised and once again scratching their heads about how to cope with an unconventional, freewheeling U.S. President who appears unsentimental about the Western alliance and discounts diplomatic niceties.
After midweek encounters in Brussels, where Trump accused Europeans of being delinquent and reportedly hinted the U.S. might withdraw from NATO unless they increase their defense spending rapidly, some European officials say the Continent now needs to start thinking about defense plans independent of NATO.
Cross-border European defense initiatives already planned, such as a quick-reaction Anglo-French expeditionary force, are likely to be advanced more quickly by European governments in the wake of this week's NATO summit.
"Europe has spent the past 18 months experimenting with an array of tactics to influence President Donald Trump, but so far neither Angela Merkel's tough talk nor Emmanuel Macron's red-carpet treatment has fundamentally changed Trump's policy decisions," noted Leslie Vinjamuri of Britain's Chatham House.
European officials say they were floundering in their efforts to contain Trump, and they fear a bigger bust-up next year, if, as is certain, not all of the alliance's European members have increased by the end of 2018 their defense spending to at least two percent of their national GDPs.
In a post-summit briefing, Denmark's defense minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen complained of the difficulty "to decode what policy the American president is promoting." He added: "There is a complete unpredictability in this, and one of the things you need in this alliance is predictability towards Russia."
But other European officials say they see calculation underpinning Trump's approach at international summits, arguing it is straight out of his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, which recommends rough-house negotiating tactics, including wrong-footing opponents and demanding much more than you are ready to settle for.
President Trump argues his confrontational deal-making style is working. For years a succession of U.S. presidents — from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama — have tried to cajole European allies to increase their military spending, but no U.S. leader has been more abrasive about it than Trump.
This week he claimed victory in persuading European members of NATO to increase their defense spending more quickly than they had agreed before. European leaders dispute his claim, saying they are on track to meet by 2024 a target of spending of at least two percent of their GDPs in line with a pledge they made in 2014 when Obama was in office.
Table-thumping needed, defenders say
The U.S. President has his defenders when it comes to his table-thumping approach to NATO — both in the U.S. and Europe — who say Trump's tough tactics will be the only way to ensure the alliance's European members do take on a greater share of the defense burden. They place the blame for the regular transatlantic spats since Trump came into office on the failure of Europe's political class to take long-standing American grievances about military burden-sharing — as well high European Union tariffs on U.S. goods — more seriously.
Many in Britain's military and intelligence establishments are also supportive of Trump's complaints. A group of eight former British military and intelligence chiefs, who worry Britain could slip from being a tier one' military power, argued in a midweek newspaper advertisement published this week that Trump's criticism of the Europeans (and Canadians) over burden-sharing was valid. They argued the threats Britain faces demands increased military expenditure, even though Britain is one of only four European countries that already meets the two percent target.
Combat readiness across the board among European militaries is woefully inadequate.
Last February, the German parliament's military commissioner issued a scathing report on the readiness of Germany's armed forces, noting that only a fraction of crucial weapons systems was operational. At the end of 2017, Six out of six of the navy's submarines were out of commission and none of the air force's 14 large transport planes were available for deployment due to repairs. More than 20,000 officer and non-commissioned officer positions were unfilled.
Many fighter jets, tanks and ships are outdated, the commissioner noted, and in some cases not fully operational because of poor planning or lack of spare parts. Some air force pilots are unable to train because too many aircraft are being repaired. The report said the government needed to pursue reforms "with greater urgency" and to increase defense spending.
But some analysts (and officials) who acknowledge there's validity in Trump's complaints also criticize the U.S. President for his inflammatory negotiating tactics.
That they say is adding to Western discord and risks eroding transatlantic goodwill and weaken the ties between America and Europe.
"The President has identified important issues that need to be resolved but the way to do it is working with our allies," said Anthony Gardner, a former U.S. ambassador to the European Union. He fears Trump undervalues the alliance and is too ready to play out disagreements in public rather than reserving them for private negotiation. "He isn't the first President to say spend more, but the way he is doing it is counter-productive," he added.
Speaking to MSNBC, Gen. Ben Hodges, who served as Commanding General of the United States Army in Europe, says Trump has left NATO allies angry and worrying about whether they can rely on the U.S..
That might well, though, be what Trump has as a goal. On the campaign trail he deemed NATO "obsolete." In the White House he has affirmed his support for the security organization and at various times acknowledged the importance of America's long-standing alliance with Europe. He did so again in Brussels at a press conference before flying off for his four-day visit to Britain, which also saw controversy over a Trump newspaper interview in which he criticized Prime Minister Theresa May over her handling of Brexit negotiations.
But Trump hasn't disguised his distrust of multilateral organizations and his wanting a return of powerful, independent nation states that deal with each other bilaterally rather than via international organizations.
European NATO officials say they take comfort that the Pentagon is shifting more resources to Europe in the face of a resurgent Russia. And they were this week relieved when Trump signed on to a robustly worded common statement which reaffirmed the military alliance's core collective defense principle — "any attack against one ally will be regarded as an attack against us all."
The statement also rebuked Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and a nerve-agent assassination attempt in England that the British blame on the Kremlin.
Nonetheless, European defense officials say they are left wondering what the shape of the Western security alliance will be this time next year, when NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary.