PAUL CONNEW: With friends like these... Will Trump lower Europe’s defences

US President Donald Trump (C) delivers a speech next to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L)

US President Donald Trump (C) delivers a speech next to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (L) during the unveiling ceremony of the Berlin Wall monument, during the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images) - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Independence Day this week only served as a grim reminder that in 2018 America has an unprecedented president who considers himself independent of all the norms of domestic and international behaviour, writes PAUL CONNEW

Independence Day this week only served as a grim reminder that in 2018 America has an unprecedented president who considers himself independent of all the norms of domestic and international behaviour.

On the home front, the build-up to July 4 saw tens of thousands of people across the US taking to the streets to protest against Donald Trump's zero tolerance immigration policy and the separation of children and parents seeking sanctuary in the world's richest nation.

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Even The Donald's Twitter feed was uncharacteristically muted as protesters targeted his New Jersey golf club, where he was spending the pre-holiday weekend, with banners and chants that included 'Make America Sane Again' and 'The United States NOT a Fascist State'.

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Leading Democrat politicians and showbiz and sports stars joined the cross-country day of protest, as it was revealed that separated children as young as five have been forced to represent themselves in court. The crisis testing America's national conscience, and deeply splitting and unnerving the Republican party itself, shows little sign of abating.

But if Trump is driving deep domestic divisions this week, next week he's destined to do much the same abroad as he heads first to an acrimonious NATO summit in Brussels, then on to that controversial trip to UK to meet the Queen and Theresa May in the face of more planned mass demonstrations, and finally to his off-the-cuff summit with Vladimir Putin that is sending chills down the spines of America's European allies.

The undiplomatic mood music was set by a Trumpian prelude to the NATO gathering when it leaked out that the president told G7 leaders during last month's ill-tempered Canadian summit: 'NATO is as bad as NAFTA.' Comparing the organisation that holds the fabric of the Western Alliance together to the trade arrangement he holds in total contempt is hardly an omen for harmony in Brussels.

It goes without saying that Trump – with a measure of justification – will pressure European leaders to increase their financial contribution to NATO, but his controversial decision to defy allies and some of his own advisers by announcing he'll meet Putin in Helsinki on July 16, just four days after the NATO summit concludes, looks deliberately provocative.

We now know, too, that before he surprised them with the Putin summit news, the US president sent aggressive letters to eight NATO member state leaders berating them for not meeting the 2% of GDP defence spending target. Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands were on the Trump mailing list, while US defence secretary, General Jim Mattis, a NATO loyalist who has clashed with the president over his hostile approach, has told his UK counterpart Gavin Williamson that he's worried about the state of Britain's military capacity.

The developing sense of crisis ahead of the NATO summit was heightened when the US ambassador to Estonia, vastly-experienced veteran diplomat James D Melville, publicly resigned in protest over what he termed his president's 'disregard for American commitments to Europe and the liberal international order'. He delivered the verbal missile: 'The honourable thing is to resign. Having served under six presidents and 11 secretaries of state, I never really thought it would reach that point for me. For the president to say the EU was 'set up to take advantage of the United States, to attack our piggy bank', is not only factually wrong, but proves to me that it's time to go.'

These sentiments were echoed by Derek Chollet, a senior former US Defence Department official and now vice-president of the influential German Marshall Fund of the United States, who warned this week: 'Trump still seems to think NATO is some sort of protection racket where the US is doing all the work protecting all these deadbeat Europeans while they're sitting around on vacation… the danger is he's turning his 'or else' rhetoric on trade tariffs on to international security too.'

Overall, it has revived the alarm bells that rang around Europe this time last year when Trump failed to wholeheartedly commit to NATO's Article 5 (which says an attack on one ally is an attack on all) and told the New York Times that the US would only come to the aid of its European NATO allies 'if they fulfil their obligations to us'. In true Trumpian terms, that equates to stumping up more money, or else – the sole currency by which this president defines diplomacy.

Certainly Trump isn't a president who unequivocally shares the view of all his post-war predecessors, Republican or Democrat, or indeed the longstanding motto of the American forces based in Europe: 'Stronger Together'.

It has also emerged Trump (not a man known for his grasp of detail) has been 'taken aback' by the size of the US military presence in Germany and has demanded an analysis of the impact and cost of withdrawing or redeploying those forces.

That has alarmed both Pentagon chiefs and State Department diplomats, already nervous that the Trump/Putin Helsinki summit could result in the president impulsively announcing a cancellation or reduction in US involvement in NATO military exercises, similar to the one he produced after his Singapore tête-à-tête with Kim Jong-un.

Already European leaders are resigned to hearing Trump repeating his G7 demand for Putin's Russia to be readmitted, to recast it as the G8. They are braced for the real possibility that the US president will demand they accept Russia's annexation of Crimea and, if they continue to refuse, that he could well unilaterally declare his support for America doing so, as a dramatic highlight at the end of his Putin summit.

Privately, many European leaders are speculating whether Trump's enthusiasm for pressing ahead with meeting Putin has more to do with special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation into the Russian Connection meddling during the 2016 US presidential election than 'international diplomacy'.

The suspicion is fuelled further by leaks suggesting that only last week Trump angered US intelligence chiefs by indicating his sympathy with Putin's denials of any dirty tricks by the Kremlin.

With continuing sanctions, the annexation of Crimea, Russian cyber warfare, the Skripal nerve agent poisoning, Ukraine and the shooting down of a civilian airliner using a Russian mobile missile system all on the NATO agenda, the scene is set for an excess of tricky diplomatic muscle-flexing in Brussels.

But such is Donald Trump's narcissistic belief in his own art of the deal summit mastery that even the compelling evidence unearthed by US spy chiefs that Kim Jong-un probably played him for a fool in Singapore won't – alas – prove a personal deterrent in Europe next week.

US intelligence chiefs are strongly warning the White House that the North Korean dictator is actually developing, stockpiling and concealing his nuclear capacity rather than genuinely dismantling it.

Even so, in defiance of his own spy chiefs' evidence, Trump couldn't resist tweeting that North Korea is 'no longer a nuclear threat'.

Little wonder, then, that Putin will be heading to Helsinki equally convinced that this is a US president who can be taken for a ride... with NATO and European solidarity paying the price down the line, with Russian expansionism the ultimate destination.

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