Shortly after former President Donald J. Trump took office, his staff explained how NATO’s mutual defense commitments worked.
“You mean, if Russia attacked Lithuania, we would go to war with Russia?” he replied. “That’s crazy.”
Mr. Trump has never believed in the fundamental “one for all and all for one” concept of the Atlantic Alliance. In fact, he spent much of his four-year presidency undermining them while simultaneously pressuring members to honor their commitments to spend more on their own armed forces, with the threat that if they did he would not come to their aid.
But over the weekend he took things to a whole new level, declaring at a rally in South Carolina that not only would he not defend the European countries he believed were on the back foot in the event of an attack by Russia, but he would even go so far will “encourage” them. “Russia should “do whatever the hell it wants” against them. Never before has a president of the United States suggested that he would incite an enemy to attack American allies.
Some may dismiss this as typical Trump rally bluster or dismiss it as a poor attempt at humor. Others may even applaud the hard line against supposedly dead allies who, in this view, have exploited American friendship for too long. But Mr Trump’s rhetoric foreshadows potentially sweeping changes in the international order if he wins the White House again in November, with unpredictable consequences.
What’s more, Mr. Trump’s rant once again raised uncomfortable questions about his tastes among friends. Encouraging Russia to attack NATO allies, even if he wasn’t entirely serious, is a startling statement that underscores his strange affinity with President Vladimir V. Putin, who has already demonstrated a willingness to invade neighboring countries that don’t have the NATO protection.
Mr. Trump, long averse to alliances of any kind, could, in a second term, effectively destroy the security umbrella that has protected friends in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East for much of the nearly eight decades since the end of World War II. Simply suggesting that the United States cannot be relied upon would undermine the value of such alliances, prompting long-standing friends to hedge and perhaps ally with other powers, and expelling people like Mr. Putin and Xi Jinping Encourage China.
“Russia and China have no comparison with America’s allies, and those allies depend on American commitment,” said Douglas E. Lute, a retired lieutenant general who served under President Barack Obama as ambassador to NATO and a top adviser to President George W. Bush officiated at the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Doubting the United States’ commitment to its allies sacrifices America’s greatest advantage over Russia and China, something neither Putin nor Xi could achieve alone.”
Mr. Trump was unfazed by criticism of his recent comment and doubled down on his statement on Sunday.
“No money in the form of foreign aid should be given to a country unless it is in the form of a loan and not just a gift,” he wrote in all caps on social media. “We should never give more money,” he added, “without the hope of repayment or without ‘conditions.’
Mr Trump has long threatened to withdraw the US from NATO and will no longer be surrounded by advisers of the kind who stopped him last time. At the end of his presidency, he tried to withdraw American troops from Germany out of anger at then-Chancellor Angela Merkel. This withdrawal was only prevented because President Biden came into office in time to overturn the decision.
At other times, Mr. Trump considered and was then dissuaded from also withdrawing American troops from South Korea, but has said since leaving office that such a move would be a priority in a second term unless South Korea paid more compensation. Mr. Trump would also likely cut off military aid to Ukraine to fend off Russian invaders, and he has offered no support for more aid to Israel in its war with Hamas.
Anticipating the possibility of an American withdrawal from the world if Mr. Trump returns to office, Congress recently passed a law banning any president from withdrawing from the NATO treaty without Senate approval. But Mr. Trump wouldn’t even have to formally leave the alliance to make it pointless.
And if the United States cannot be expected to come to the aid of its partners in Europe, where it has the strongest historical ties, then so can other countries with mutual security agreements with Washington, such as Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand , Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama could also hardly be sure of American help.
Peter D. Feaver, a professor at Duke University and a former national security adviser to Mr. Bush and President Bill Clinton, said Mr. Trump could reduce American troops in Europe to levels that would make “all military defense planning hollow” and “regularly tenuous.” would “express U.S. commitment in a way that would convince Mr. Putin that he has a free hand.”
“Just doing those two things could hurt and perhaps kill NATO,” Mr. Feaver said. “And few allies or partners elsewhere in the world would trust U.S. engagement after seeing us break NATO.”
History suggests this could lead to more war, not less. In 1950, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson described an American “defense belt” in Asia that did not include South Korea, North Korea invaded five months later and began a bloody war that nonetheless included the United States.
Mr. Trump’s signal to NATO allies like Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and, yes, Lithuania is that they could be on their own next January. Just days after Putin told Tucker Carlson that Poland was to blame for Adolf Hitler’s 1939 invasion, the mood in Warsaw could hardly be more turbulent.
“Article 5 has been invoked once so far – to help the US in Afghanistan after 9/11,” Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, noted in an email exchange on Sunday. “Poland sent a brigade for a decade. We didn’t send an invoice to Washington.”
The contempt for NATO that Mr. Trump expresses is based on a false premise that he has repeated for years, even after being corrected, a sign that he is either unable to process information that conflicts to a fixed idea in his head, or that he is willing to twist facts to suit his preferred narrative.
As he has done so often, Trump criticized NATO partners, whom he described as “criminal” in paying for American protection. “You have to pay,” he said. “You have to pay your bills.”
In fact, NATO partners are not paying the United States, as Mr. Trump has suggested. NATO members contribute to a common budget for civilian and military costs using a formula based on national income and have historically met these obligations.
What Mr. Trump is misleadingly referring to is a target set by NATO defense ministers in 2006 for each member to spend two percent of its gross domestic product on its own military. This standard was ratified by NATO leaders in 2014 with the goal of achieving it by 2024. Last year, only 11 of the 31 members reached that level, and last summer NATO leaders pledged an “enduring commitment” to finally reach that level. But even those who didn’t do so don’t owe the United States any money.
Members that spend 2 percent of their economic output on defense include Poland and Lithuania, and the number has risen in the last two years following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. Other countries have pledged to increase spending over the next few years.
According to national security veterans, NATO’s spending is a legitimate concern, and Mr. Trump is not the first president to push NATO partners to do more – so did Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama. But Mr. Trump is the first to portray the alliance as a kind of protection racket, with those who do not “pay up” left in the lurch by the United States, let alone exposed to attack by Russia backed by Washington.
“NATO’s credibility rests on the credibility of the man who occupies the Oval Office, because it is the decisions made there that will be decisive in a critical situation,” said Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, which is just completing its accession 32nd member admitted to NATO.
“This applies to crisis management with marginal involvement in the ultimate issue of nuclear deterrence,” he said. “If Putin threatened nuclear strikes against Poland, would Trump say he doesn’t care?”
Mr. Trump’s fixation on getting paid by allies extends beyond Europe. At one point he attacked the mutual defense treaty with Japan, which had been in force since 1951, and at other points he prepared the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. In a 2021 interview shortly after leaving office, he made it clear that if he returned to power, he would demand South Korea pay billions of dollars to keep American troops there.
(In fact, South Korea pays $1 billion a year and spent $9.7 billion expanding Camp Humphreys for American forces; Mr. Trump said he wanted $5 billion a year.)
National security veterans from both parties said the thinking misunderstands the value of the alliances to the United States. It is an advantage for the Americans to have bases abroad in countries like Germany and South Korea, which enable a quick response to crises around the world. It also deters reluctant states like North Korea from adventurism. “America’s commitment to its allies is not altruism or charity, but rather serves a vital national interest,” Lute said.
The uncertainty that would result from Mr. Trump’s lack of commitment would lead to volatility not seen in years.
“The only saving grace,” Mr. Bildt said, “is that he will probably be so unreliable and unpredictable that even the Kremlin would be a little unsafe.” But they would know they have a fair chance of using him in any political crisis to play.”