The chill in Brussels

It was not a summit to indulge the nostalgia of a painstakingly nurtured post-War partnership between the U.S. and Europe. Nor was it an occasion to pronounce declarations of mutual solidarity to face up to an uncertain world. Such political and diplomatic language might, in any case, have struck an especially awkward note when leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation gathered in Brussels, given the very public airing of differences on the notion of a shared trans-Atlantic vision by U.S. President Donald Trump since his election campaign. Soon after his election, he reportedly enquired from the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, which country was next in line to quit the European Union after Britain voted last June to leave. In turn, his election had been received in European Union circles with considerable dismay, if not disbelief. German Chancellor Angela Merkel even spelt out, in quite candid terms, the political basis of the EU’s future engagement with Washington in her letter of congratulations to Mr. Trump.

While the alliance represents the military and security interests of the member-states, NATO member-countries are, in several other global forums, also knit together by an overarching commitment to preserve the liberal democratic world order they crafted in the aftermath of the Second World War. Against this backdrop, it was reasonable, at the minimum, to expect Mr. Trump to explicitly endorse the alliance’s pledge of mutual defence under Article 5. Yet, in a familiar replay of the “America First” script, the summit on May 25 was reduced by Mr. Trump to brass-tacks matters of burden-sharing among the 28-member alliance and apportioning blame. Indeed, compliance with the treaty stipulation of a contribution of 2% of gross domestic product by individual states has been far from satisfactory, with the U.S. shouldering the bulk of the burden. The provision has even proved controversial, with Germany and other countries voicing scepticism about increasing NATO’s defence budget. However, the fact that the issue of “chronic underpayments” to NATO should have almost dominated proceedings in Mr. Trump’s first overseas engagement with America’s European allies shows a lack of sense of the occasion and diplomatic finesse on his part. The overall stance has understandably caused considerable concern among European leaders, with prospects for the Paris climate agreement and revival of world trade looking bleak on Mr. Trump’s watch. The hope is that Washington would at some point tone down its rhetoric on the contentious questions. A more accommodative stance vis-à-vis China and a willingness to renegotiate the U.S. trade agreement with Canada and Mexico seem to be signs of a course-correction. European leaders must hope he will move nearer to the traditional U.S. line on trans-Atlantic issues too.