The alliance’s 70th anniversary will be marked at the high-profile summit in the British capital.
US President Donald Trump has entered a war of words between his French and Turkish counterparts, saying Emmanuel Macron’s remark that NATO was brain dead was “very, very nasty” and “disrespectful”.
Macron made the comment in a November 7 interview with The Economist, as he criticised a lack of coordination between NATO members over Turkey’s recent operation in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan later responded, challenging Macron to check his own “brain death”.
Trump, speaking to reporters in London on Tuesday alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, said Macron’s assessment of the military alliance was “insulting to a lot of different forces”.
“It’s a tough statement, though, when you make a statement like that, that is a very, very nasty statement to essentially 28, including them, 28 countries,” he said.
Trump also said he would not allow France to take advantage of American companies after a US government investigation found France’s new digital services tax would harm US technology companies.
“It’s not right to be taken advantage of on NATO and also then to be taken advantage of on trade, and that’s what happens. We can’t let that happen,” he said.
In response, the French government said on Tuesday that France and the European Union are ready to retaliate if Trump acts on a threat to impose duties of up to 100 percent on $2.4bn in imports of champagne, handbags and other French products.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire branded the US threat unacceptable and said the French tax did not discriminate against American companies.
“In case of new American sanctions, the European Union would be ready to retaliate,” Le Maire told Radio Classique.
He later told a press conference: “We are not targeting any country.”
Trump struck a more conciliatory tone regarding NATO, the 29-member organisation he has previously heavily criticised, saying it was more “flexible” now and serves “a great purpose”.
Several world leaders are in the English capital for a two-day NATO meeting celebrating 70 years of the alliance.
Queen Elizabeth will host them at Buckingham Palace later on Tuesday evening.
The official leaders’ meeting will take place on Wednesday, in Watford at the Grove Hotel.
The gathering comes little more than a week before the UK holds a general election, on December 12.
NATO came under scrutiny in October when Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring in northeastern Syria, after Trump said American troops would withdraw from the region.
Turkey said it wanted to create a safe zone to protect the country against Kurdish “terror” groups and ISIL, where it could relocate Syrian refugees. Ankara considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against Turkey for 35 years and is designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and EU.
The YPG forms the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But the militia, a US ally, was crucial in the fight against ISIL, and several NATO leaders hit back at Ankara by suspending arms sales to Turkey while others, including France, worried that the operation risked ISIL fighters escaping.
Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara said: “Clearly from the way leaders are approaching [NATO], they don’t seem to be optimistic themselves.
“They don’t see eye to eye on the challenges facing the West or the NATO alliance.
“Macron was saying that NATO has lost its raison d’etre, its reason for existence – what he’s saying is that if Turkey and the US are going to act on their own without consulting NATO members on something as important as Syria, then why do we have NATO?”
Trump also addressed a broad range of other issues in his 52-minute press conference, including the UK election, his opponents’ attempt to impeach him at home, Washington’s relationship with North Korea and the current wave of protests in Iran.
On the UK, he said was a “fan of Brexit” but refused to comment on the election in general. However, he has previously shown support for right-wing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist, would be “so bad” for Britain if he won.
On mounting allegations that the US is interested in the NHS, Britain’s public national health service, from a trade perspective, he said: “I don’t even know where that rumour started. We have absolutely nothing to do with it and we wouldn’t want to if you handed it to us on a silver platter, we want nothing to do with it.”
He described an attempt to impeach him as “hoax” as the Democrats try to win support ahead of the US presidential election next year.
“It is done for purely political gain, they are going to see whether or not they can do something in 2020 because otherwise they are going to lose,” he said.
On the Asia-Pacific, he described North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man, because he likes sending rockets up”, adding that South Korea should pay more for US defence.
Regarding Iran, which is currently witnessing a wave of deadly anti-government protests, Trump claimed that the Islamic republic “is killing perhaps thousands and thousands of people right now as we speak, that is why they cut off the internet so people can’t see what is going on.
“Not just small numbers which are bad, big numbers which are really bad, and really big numbers… It is a terrible thing and the world has to be watching.”
Amnesty International said on Monday at least 208 people have been killed in the protests and crackdown. Iranian officials disputed Amnesty’s findings on Tuesday.