It is no understatement to say that next week's visit by US President Donald Trump to Europe could come to define America's relationship with its erstwhile allies in in the continent for decades to come. The initial priority of Mr Trump's visit was to attend the annual summit of Nato leaders which is this year being held in Brussels, where the main item on the president's agenda will be to take a number of European member states to task for not spending enough on defence. In addition Mr Trump will also be making his long-delayed trip to Britain, where he will meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May, as well as having afternoon tea with the Queen at Windsor Castle.
But a visit that was initially regarded as being little more than a routine Trumpian jaunt has suddenly become the source of profound concern for policymakers in Europe after the White House confirmed that Mr Trump will also meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his European tour. And, to judge by Mr Trump's pre-visit body language, the president appears a lot more enthusiastic about meeting with the autocratic Russian leader than he is about socialising with America's long-standing European allies.
Relations between Mr Trump and the major European powers have already become strained following the president's decision to start a trade war with the European Union over what he regards as the organisation's anti-American protectionist trade policies. Mr Trump's desire to pursue his doctrine of "America First" has put him at loggerheads with many of Washington's traditional allies in the West. This was made abundantly clear with the extraordinary scenes at last month's G7 summit in Quebec, where the president, having complained that he regarded the meeting as an unwelcome distraction from other, more pressing business, then refused to put his name to the communique following a row over what he contended were unfair trade practices towards the US.
Consequently European leaders are looking forward to next week’s Nato summit with a degree of trepidation, especially as it seems the main issue Mr Trump wants to concentrate on is Washington’s long-standing resentment at the failure of so many European members states to meet the Nato guideline to spend a minimum of two per cent of their annual GDP on defence expenditure.
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The security of Europe depends heavily on the protection afforded by American firepower, without which the Western democracies would struggle to defend themselves against threats from countries like Russia, which is in the process of undertaking a massive upgrade of its military capabilities. But while the US spends around four per cent of GDP on defence, thereby making it the world’s undisputed military superpower, the overwhelming majority of the other 28 members of the Nato alliance do not even reach the 2 per cent target set by Nato.
Mr Trump claims that as many as 20 Nato countries do not meet their financial obligations, and on the eve of the summit has written to a number of key allies, including Germany, Belgium, Norway and Canada, stating in blunt terms that they need to raise their game. And given the dismissive tone Mr Trump adopted at the G7 meeting, there is genuine concern among European leaders that the president could adopt a similar tone in Brussels next week, with all the repercussions that this could have for the future of the Nato alliance, which has helped to keep the peace in Europe for nearly 70 years.
The warning signs concerning Mr Trump's lukewarm attitude towards Nato were clearly evident when he went to his first summit last year and failed to deliver unequivocal American support for Article Five of the Nato charter, whereby any attack carried out against a member state is regarded as an attack against the entire alliance.
Article Five was famously triggered after the September 11 attacks in 2001, when the US received a near-unanimous declaration of support from the rest of the alliance. But with many east European countries, such as Poland and the the Baltic states, increasingly concerned by the threat of further acts of Russian aggression, Mr Trump’s equivocation has raised concerns that Europe would no longer be able to count on American support in the event of a confrontation with Russia or any other hostile power.
These concerns, moreover, will be exacerbated by Mr Trump's surprise announcement that he is to join Mr Putin for one-on-one talks in Helsinki immediately after the Nato summit has concluded. Mr Trump's decision to meet with the Russian leader is remarkable for the fact that the president remains the subject of numerous investigations in the US into allegations that his campaign team colluded with the Russians during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
It is a measure of Mr Trump’s contempt for the inquiries, such as the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference, that, rather than steering clear of any personal associations with the Kremlin, Mr Trump should actively seek a summit with Mr Putin. Mr Trump has enormous belief in his personal negotiating skills, and no doubt believes that, by initiating the first US-Russia summit since he took office, he can defuse many of the tensions that have arisen between Washington and Moscow over issues such as Crimea, Syria and the recent Salisbury poisoning plot in Britain.
Mr Putin, by contrast, will be looking to see if Mr Trump can help him achieve one of his life-long ambitions, namely the destruction of Nato. The Russian leader deeply resents the manner in which the alliance recruited east European states to its ranks following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Mr Putin, therefore, would love to see the Nato alliance dissolve. And Mr Trump, if he does not get a satisfactory result at next week’s Nato summit, might be just the man to make the Russian leader’s dream come true.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor