The Biggest Problem With Trump’s NATO Remark

Did Trump just encourage Russia to invade U.S. allies in Europe if they don’t spend more on defense? It seems so. At a campaign rally on Saturday, he recounted a story about a NATO summit he attended while he was president:

One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, “Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” I said, “You didn’t pay, you’re delinquent?” He said, “Yes, let’s say that happened.” “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them [presumably the Russians] to do whatever the hell they want.”

In one aspect, this remark—widely reported in news media the past few days—has been taken a bit out of context. Trump cited the story as an example of how his tough-guy tactics were effective. He got the allies, he claimed, to “pay up”—to boost their defense spending after years of shirking their obligations. This is a message of great appeal to his base.

Yet, more broadly, the remark is just as alarming and dangerous as Trump’s critics and many European officials are interpreting it. It reflects a long-standing attitude of indifference and borderline hostility to allies, of viewing them the same way that a Mafia boss regards his capos or clients in a protection racket.

There is no question: When—not if—Vladimir Putin read that remark, he mused that he might get away with intimidating or invading Poland, the Baltic nations, or some other nearby countries if Trump wins the 2024 election. Ditto for Xi Jinping and Taiwan.

Trump’s purely transactional view of alliances is nothing new. It was widely reported that, as president, he told his aides several times that he wanted to pull out of NATO. In 2020 he told the European Union’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, “You need to understand that if Europe is under attack, we will never come to help you,” adding, “By the way, NATO is dead and we will leave.” After he left office, some of his top aides said that if he had been reelected in 2020, Trump would have definitely quit the alliance.

Still, even in those earlier comments, which allies and many U.S. politicians (including Republicans) found disturbing enough, Trump never went so far as to say he would encourage Russia to invade if some ally didn’t meet its financial obligations. (It is also nerve-racking that much of the crowd at the campaign rally laughed and applauded when he said this.)

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which was drawn up in 1949, commits NATO members to treat an invasion of one as an invasion of them all. The only time Article 5 has ever been invoked was in 2001, after the U.S. was attacked by al-Qaida. It was a reversal of expectations: The assumption had always been that the U.S. would come to the defense of Western Europe; now Europe was coming to the defense of the U.S. (President George W. Bush brushed away the offer, though nearly all the NATO nations sent troops to Afghanistan, joining the U.S. invasion to oust the Taliban and protect a new government, even though they had no direct stakes in the fight.)

Yet when aides first briefed Trump on Article 5, soon after he became president, he couldn’t fathom the whole concept. “You mean if Russia attacked Lithuania, we would go to war with Russia?” he responded. “That’s crazy!”

During his term, he made similar comments about South Korea, threatening to withdraw U.S. troops, which have been there as a deterrent to North Korean aggression since 1953, unless Seoul stepped up its (already-considerable) financial support for the deployment. This past July, he hinted in an interview with Fox News that he wouldn’t protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion because it “took away” the U.S. microchip business.

In short, when Trump says “America First,” he tends to mean “America Only.”

But let’s go back to the story he told at Saturday’s campaign rally. First, it’s very likely that no such conversation with “one of the presidents of a big country” ever took place. It is sad and hilarious—an illustration of this powerful man’s astonishing need for relentless respect and esteem—that, in so many stories he tells, some person addresses him as “sir.” That the person in this story is a fellow president makes it extremely unlikely. All presidents and prime ministers address one another by their first names; the social privilege goes with the title. And it is nearly inconceivable that the specific leaders of Germany, France, Britain, or Canada (the biggest NATO allies), none of whom thought highly of Trump, would have shown such deference, except perhaps sardonically.

Second, it is true that Trump pressed the allies to spend more on defense. But it is almost certainly untrue that he threatened to “encourage” Russia to attack if they didn’t. Had he said something so provocative, it would have leaked to the press (like almost everything else he says). Trump was just bragging to his base. The disturbing thing is that he considers such an irresponsible remark to be a brag.

Finally, on some level, was Trump right? Quite apart from the particulars, did he successfully pressure the allies to stop being “delinquent” on their bills and “pay up”? First, we need to clarify what these terms mean. NATO members have no bills; there is no such thing as being compliant or delinquent on dues payable to Washington or Brussels. Rather, back in 2006, NATO’s members agreed to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. Very few members made good on this pledge. So, at a summit in 2014, they got a bit more concrete and practical, agreeing to meet their 2 percent goal by 2024.

How well are they doing? At the moment, 11 of NATO’s 30 countries have met the 2 percent goal—Poland, the U.S., Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, Britain, and Slovakia—with Germany on course to join the list this year. This is an improvement. In 2014, when the target date was set, just three countries (the U.S., Britain, and Greece) were spending that much.

Did Trump bring about this improvement? Perhaps to some degree, but other factors played a role. When Trump took office in 2017, the number of compliant nations had risen from three to six. During his term, the number rose to 10. So, he could claim that he’s responsible for—or at least presided over—a bit more than half the increase (four out of seven).

But other factors intervened, not least Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine. That grabbed the attention of NATO’s members, especially those in Eastern Europe, closest to Russia’s borders and in some cases former members of the Russia-led Warsaw Pact. (Seven of the 11 nations that now are 2-percenters are uncomfortably close to Russia’s borders.)

Percentage of GDP is a measure of effort, not of capability.

Looking at how much money the NATO countries besides the United States spend on defense, we see that the amount did rise during Trump’s term—from $277 billion in 2017 to $323 billion in 2021, an increase of $46 billion. But this trend of increasing spending began in 2014, the year of NATO’s pledge and, more decisively, of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. In those three years before Trump took office, spending rose from $250 billion to $277 billion, an increase of $27 billion. Trump presided over part of this growth in spending, and his pressure may have sustained it, but he did not spur it.

Even granting Trump some credit, he has exaggerated its impact. In 2019 he claimed that NATO spending had gone up $130 billion during his term—more than five times the amount it had increased by that point.

In sum, from start to finish, Trump’s remark on Saturday is appalling: part falsehood, part exaggeration, but most significantly, a clear statement of his intentions in foreign policy should American voters return him to the White House. The strength of an alliance depends most of all on the credibility of its members’ commitments. Trump is throwing grave doubt on that credibility. He is telling allies that under a second Trump term, the United States cannot be trusted. He’s telling adversaries that they can, in his own words, “do whatever the hell they want.”

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