US President Donald Trump all elbows in a Europe that is eager to jab back

US President Donald Trump arrives at the Hotel San Domenico on the second day of the G7 summit of Heads of State and of Government, in Taormina, Sicily, on May 27, 2017.
US President Donald Trump arrives at the Hotel San Domenico on the second day of the G7 summit of Heads of State and of Government, in Taormina, Sicily, on May 27, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

TAORMINA, Italy (NYTIMES) - "Trump shoves his allies," read the front page of Belgium's Le Soir. "Boor in chief" declared Germany's financial newspaper Handelsblatt. An editorial in Le Monde called him "brutal and heavy-handed."

President Donald Trump is winning as many headlines in Europe as he did in the Middle East. But as he arrived in the beguiling seaside town of Taormina for a meeting of the Group of 7 countries on Friday (May 26), the smooth statesman celebrated in Saudi Arabia and Israel is now being portrayed as the ugly American, trampling America's friends and trashing the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Whether it was lecturing Nato members for their inadequate contributions to the alliance, scolding Germany for its trade surplus with the United States, or pushing the leader of Montenegro out of his way at a photo shoot, Trump has switched from diplomat to disrupter.

It is a more familiar role for the president, one his aides say will pay dividends for the US in the form of better trade deals and more equitable security arrangements.

But critics say that his behaviour overlooks the fact that America's most durable alliances are in Europe, not the Middle East, and that Europeans are not likely to buy Trump's bluster.

"Everybody sees that he's trying to be a tough negotiator with the Europeans, whom he apparently views as a bunch of weaklings," said Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy Studies, a think tank in Brussels. "But nobody sees any use in firing back. They think there will be very little action on trade. Ultimately, they think it's harmless."

On Friday evening, White House officials reported that Trump's first day of meetings with the leaders of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Japan had been lively and productive. The leaders discussed terrorism, North Korea, Iran, trade and climate change, they said, and there was even hope that the US and Europe might stake out some common ground on the future of the Paris climate accord.

Gary D. Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, compared the atmosphere to a family dinner with his three daughters, in which all those at the table are confident about their views. "There was a lot of what I would call pushing and prodding," Cohn said, "I think the president learned how important it is for the United States to show leadership."

Still, the tone was a notable departure from the visit to the Middle East, where Trump scrupulously avoided lecturing the Saudis on human rights or the Israelis on their construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His harsh statements in Europe suggested that he could be the most divisive American leader to join this rarefied club since it was first organised in 1975.

In Brussels on Thursday, he told European leaders that Germany was "very bad" and complained about "chronic underpayments" to Nato. German news organisations reported that he had threatened to cut off imports of German cars, and several of them - with a touch of hyperbole resulting from an imprecise translation of Trump's comments into German - said that he had called Germans "very evil."

As Trump showed up Friday in an ancient amphitheatre to be received by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy, Cohn was busy cleaning up those comments.

"He said they're very bad on trade, but he doesn't have a problem with Germany," Cohn said. "He said his dad is from Germany." (In fact, Trump's grandfather, not father, emigrated from Germany.)

Whatever his intentions, Trump cut a rancorous swath through the administrative heart of Europe. At a ceremony to dedicate a new Nato headquarters, Trump accused his fellow leaders of not paying their fair share of the alliance's expenses.

Later, while taking what is known as the "family photo" of leaders, Trump shoved past the prime minister of tiny Montenegro, Dusko Markovic, to get to his assigned spot, before straightening up, pulling the sides of his coat together and surveying the room. The video of the incident, which quickly got wide attention on the internet, seemed to crystallise Trump's backhanded treatment of Europeans.

"President Donald Trump said he was solicitous not to 'admonish' leaders of the Arab world," the editorial in Le Monde said. "The American president did not trouble himself over such consideration with his European allies."

In the Middle East, Trump skirted the difficult topics of human rights. In Europe, however, he recycled complaints from his presidential campaign about what he characterised as Europe's unfair trade practices and its unwillingness to shoulder its share of the burden for defence.

Trump won praise for his performance in the Middle East, even from critics. He committed no major gaffes, picked up some valuable IOUs from Saudi Arabia, and thrust the US back into the centre of things in the region. But he had no similar agenda when he got to Europe.

The president tried to use the deadly terrorist attack in Manchester, England, to build unity behind his counterterrorism agenda. At Nato, he asked for a moment of silence to honour the victims of the attack. But he shifted quickly to the dispute over burden sharing.

Unlike his approach on trade, Trump's pressure on allies to contribute more to Nato aappears to be working, according to Europe experts.

"Europeans are so dug into their campfire mentality that they are essentially not open to logical arguments," said John C. Kornblum, a former US ambassador to Germany.

"They will move when they have to, based mostly on threats and intimidation."