US split with Nato leaders on full display

BRUSSELS • US President Donald Trump has punctured any illusions that he was on a fence-mending tour of Europe, declining to explicitly endorse Nato's mutual defence pledge and lashing out at fellow members for what he called their "chronic underpayments" to the alliance.

On Thursday, Mr Trump brought the "America first" themes of his presidential campaign to the very heart of Europe. European leaders were visibly unsettled, with some openly lamenting divisions with the United States on trade, climate and the best way to confront Russia.

The discord was palpable even in body language. When Mr Trump greeted new French President Emmanuel Macron, they grabbed each other's hands, jaws clenched, in an extended grip that turned Mr Trump's knuckles white.

When the leaders lined up to pose for the traditional photograph at the Nato headquarters, Mr Trump appeared to push aside Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic to get to his assigned place in the front.

The split was starkest at Nato's headquarters, where Mr Trump used the dedication of a new building to lecture allies on their financial contributions. Far from robustly reaffirming Nato's mutual defence commitment in the way many members hoped he would, Mr Trump repeated his complaint that the US was shouldering an unfair burden.

"Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying for their defence," he declared.

Standing before a large piece of wreckage from the World Trade Center that will serve as a memorial at the headquarters, he vowed to "never forsake the friends that stood by our side" after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks, a pledge White House officials called an affirmation of mutual defence.

But to European leaders, it fell far short of an explicit affirmation of Nato's Article 5 clause, the "one-for- all, all-for-one" principle that has been the foundation of the alliance since its establishment 68 years ago.

Earlier in the day, Mr Trump, a critic of the European Union during his campaign, received a chilly reception from European counterparts in Brussels. His first meeting began with officials from the US and Europe saying nothing to each other.

Mr Trump, who once described Brussels as a "hellhole" overrun with radicals, remains an object of deep suspicion in the city. For some of the European leaders, testing Mr Trump seemed to be as important as finding common ground with him.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'US split with Nato leaders on full display'. Print Edition | Subscribe