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London NATO summit begins as tensions spike on either side of Atlantic

Edmund Heaphy
Finance and news reporter
US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at Stansted Airport in England. Photo: Frank Augstein/AP

Donald Trump arrived in London on Tuesday ostensibly to celebrate 70 years of the NATO military alliance. But tensions on either side of the Atlantic have reached an acrimonious pitch, prompting the US president to defend the organisation he has long derided.

Late last month, French president Emmanuel Macron described NATO as a “brain dead” alliance, noting that European members could no longer take the support of the US for granted.

Trump, who famously branded NATO “obsolete”, on Tuesday struck back, calling Macron’s statement “very dangerous” and “very insulting”.

“I think nobody needs it more than France,” Trump said.

But the war of words about the state of the alliance obscures the crosscurrents that Trump himself faces in the US, particularly as the impeachment enquiry launched by the Democrats gathers steam.

And for prime minister Boris Johnson, who is technically hosting the NATO celebrations, the arrival of Trump to the UK creates an effective landmine ahead of next week’s general election.

Johnson’s Conservative party has thus far maintained its lead in the polls, but the UK leader is undoubtedly fearful that Trump could put his foot in it.

Thus far, however, Trump has managed to stick to the correct tune. Speaking earlier today, he said that the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) would not form part of any potential trade pact between the US and UK.

READ MORE: Trump echoes Johnson: NHS not part of US-UK trade deal

“If you handed [the NHS] to us on a silver platter, we wouldn't want it. We want nothing to do with it,” he said.

Trump has also chosen to defend the alliance, saying it had “a great purpose” in a meeting with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.

But its future has been thrown into question — first by Trump’s repeated scorning, but also more recently by a vagrant Turkey.

Ahead of the summit, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that he would veto a plan to defend Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia from Russian aggression unless the alliance recognised the Kurdish YPG militia, who Turkey is fighting in Syria, as terrorists.

But the YFG lead a grouping that is allied with US-backed forces, making such recognition highly unlikely.

Recent actions by Turkey have only deepened Syria-related tensions, but it followed Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw forces from the country.

“If our friends at NATO don't recognise as terrorist organisations those we consider terrorist organisations, we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Erdogan said recently.

His comments are problematic, not least because NATO was set up in 1949 in the wake of the second world war, just as western nations were concerned about the rise of Soviet Russia.

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Erdogan choosing not to back a plan to defend against Russian aggression would thus mark a new low for the alliance.

Macron, Erdogan and German chancellor Angela Merkel will be received at Downing Street later on Tuesday by Johnson.

Later, leaders of all NATO member countries, including Trump, will be hosted at a reception by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.