At NATO, Trump Barks but Strained Alliance Avoids Bust Up

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Ahead of this week's summit of NATO countries in Brussels, speculation mounted about what sort of Donald Trump would turn up for the two days of talks about the military alliance.

Would it be angry, vindictive Trump who has a tendency to turn on the U.S.' historic allies in public and undermine NATO, the cornerstone of European security for 70 years?

Or would he arrive ready to make a deal and put on a display of unity that was desperately sought by his European partners after a disastrous meeting at the G7 summit in Canada last month?

In the end, the U.S. leader, who thrives on keeping both allies and enemies off balance, was a combination of both.

His Twitter account buzzed with criticism of NATO -- "Very Unfair!", "Not acceptable!" -- and he began with a blistering public attack on Germany, which he accused of being "totally controlled" by Russia.

Both charges play well with Trump's conservative electoral base back home in America.

"Trump is motivated by domestic politics, the mid-term elections (in November) and his populist image," the head of the Schuman Foundation think-tank in Brussels, Jean-Dominique Giuliani, told AFP.

But behind closed doors, European leaders suggested things had gone more smoothly, particularly over dinner on Wednesday night when the 29 heads of state and government in central Brussels.

"I read in the papers that everything depends on President Trump's mood. Well, I can tell you he was in a good mood and he said that Europe was a continent he appreciates," Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told reporters on Thursday morning.

This was echoed by others, including French President Emmanuel Macron who was photographed smiling and sharing a hug with Trump on Wednesday despite recent tensions between the two.

- Behind the bluster -

During the G7 summit in Canada in June, Trump clashed bitterly with his Western partners behind closed doors over U.S. tariffs imposed on steel and aluminum imports.

At one point, he was reported to have thrown a handful of sweets towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying "here, Angela, don't say I never give you anything."

The meeting ended with Trump insulting his host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as "dishonest and weak."

Despite fears of another bust up in Brussels, the NATO summit ended Wednesday in what was neither harmony, nor the crisis some had feared.

Trump signed up to a joint declaration by NATO members and left the Belgian capital claiming victory in having forced European states to increase their spending.

"This was a fantastic two days. It all came together at the end. Yes, it was a little tough for a little while," he said.

But Macron insisted that NATO members have simply recommitted to a previous target of military spending, set in 2014, at a level of 2.0 percent of GDP. They have also agreed to publish their plans to get there.

The joint declaration also recommitted all members to Article 5 of the alliance which holds that an attack on one country is an attack on all of them -- something Trump had raised doubts about.

"I believe in NATO," Trump told a news conference, denying rumors that had spread through the press room that he had threatened to pull out of the alliance during talks.

The joint declaration also included tough language on Russia and reiterated NATO's position that it would never recognize Moscow's annexation of Crimea -- something some Europeans fear Trump might be reconsidering.

He is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday at their first bilateral summit in Helsinki.

"The shared interests (of the European and Americans) are stronger than the public statements and the tweets," added Giuliani of the Schuman Foundation.

Referring to Trump's focus on domestic politics, he said: "Beyond that, all of the U.S. industrial, strategic and diplomatic complex sees the benefit of the alliance."

Tomas Valasek, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank, also sounded upbeat and said that a "a pattern has emerged".

Trump "uses these events to speak to home audiences. He’s permanently campaigning," Valasek wrote on Twitter, adding that NATO appeared to be "an oasis amidst the wreckage of transatlantic cooperation."

But Francois Heisbourg, head of the The International Institute for Strategic Studies, forecast a bleak future for the organization because Trump had undermined its credibility.

"Trump is not interested in a collective defense arrangement operated on multilateral lines, that’s the bottom line," he told AFP.

"NATO is like a zombie bank," he said.