Trump’s inflammatory remarks – made in private at the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this month – were first reported by Axios and confirmed on Thursday by two European officials. They have added to jitters among US allies about what will happen at a Nato summit in Brussels starting on 11 July, followed by Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki five days later.
At the tense G7 meeting in Quebec, Trump berated his six fellow leaders of major industrialised democracies for taking advantage of the US, in trade relations and in defence spending. Of the looming Nato summit, he said: “It will be an interesting summit. Nato is as bad as Nafta. It’s much too costly for the US.”
Asked for comment, a national security council spokesperson did not deny Trump made the remarks but said: “The president is committed to the alliance, as he has stated repeatedly. The president has also been clear we expect our allies to shoulder their fair share of our common defense burden and to do more in areas that most affect them.
“There is no better way to signal Nato’s resolve than for each and every ally to allocate the resources necessary to share their burden of our collective defense,” the NSC spokesperson added.
Governments in London, Paris and Berlin, as well as Ottawa, fear that Trump could lambast his Nato partners and then flatter Putin in Helsinki, triggering a crisis in confidence in the transatlantic alliance.
Europeans were ready to be criticised for low defence spending, a favourite Trump theme, but following the disastrous Quebec summit they are afraid it could be worse, with the US president calling Nato’s purpose into question.
There is added anxiety that Trump would go on, after a UK visit in between, to a chummy tête-à-tête with Putin in Finland, in the same way he flew from the fractious G7 summit in Quebec – tweeting insults at the host, Justin Trudeau, from Air Force One along the way – to a meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, where he unilaterally offered to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, to the surprise of US and South Korean militaries alike.
European, as well as US state and defence department officials, worry he could make private concessions to curry favour with Putin in Helsinki, perhaps lessening the pressure on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine.
According to BuzzFeed, Trump told leaders at the G7 summit that Crimea was Russian because everyone there speaks Russia.
Some European officials and experts argue that the anxiety over Nato’s future is overwrought and excessively focused on Trump’s remarks. They point out that the US has actually increased its investment in the defence of Europe.
“The Trump administration is spending far more on Nato than the Obama administration and greatly increasing the readiness and strength of the forces that the US can supply to Nato,” strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote in by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies on the state of the alliance.
The fractures in the alliance have been widened by a looming trade war between the US and Nato allies in Europe and Canada. Trump has imposed tariffs on their steel and aluminium and they have hit back with tariffs on distinctive US exports from Levi’s to bourbon and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The administration is also threatening sanctions against any European and other foreign firms that do business in Iran.
One of the consistent elements of Trump’s foreign policy is fervent opposition to multilateral organisations, including Nafta, which he has threatened to leave, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he abandoned, and the EU, which he rails against frequently. He has told European leaders privately they would be better off in a bilateral free-trade deal with the US than in the Union.
“We love the countries of the European Union,” Trump said on Wednesday. “But the European Union was set up to take advantage of the United States.”