Is the Nato summit going to precipitate the greatest crisis for the Western alliance since 1966? Senior figures in the British government fear it will, as I reveal in the magazine this week.
Trans-Atlantic relations are already at their lowest ebb in decades, as the US and the EU fight over trade. This summit will, as Fraser pointed out recently, give Trump the chance to open another front in this war. He’ll be able to berate — with some justification — Germany, and all but three of Nato’s EU members, for not spending the alliance minimum of two per cent of GDP on defence last year. He’ll be able to ask why the United States, which accounted for more than 70 per cent of Nato spending in 2017, should devote more resources to the defence of the continent of Europe than Europeans do.
The success of May’s visit to Washington in 2017 was getting Trump to publicly commit to Nato. As she recently confided to the cabinet, however, in private he still complains that other countries are ‘not playing their part’.
Whitehall’s great fear is that at this meeting, Trump won’t be satisfied with simply upbraiding and denouncing the Europeans for being freeloaders. Rather, they fear that he’ll go further than that and imply that those countries that aren’t meeting the two per cent target can’t be certain that they’re still covered by the American security umbrella. This would be music to Vladimir Putin’s ears and create the most serious crisis for the western alliance since France withdrew from Nato in 1966.
Another worry of senior figures in government is what Trump might propose to promote détente with Russia. One frets that Trump might arrive at the summit and announce that he has secured peace in Europe through a deal with Putin that will see everyone pulling back their forces from the border between Nato and Russia.
May is going to be caught up in the maelstrom of whatever Trump says. For Trump flies straight from the Nato summit to Britain for a three-day visit. This will leave May walking a diplomatic tightrope, as she is asked repeatedly whether she agrees with what her guest said or not.