Former U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday said he would “encourage” Russia to attack any NATO member country that didn’t meet its financial obligations to the defense alliance, in remarks that the White House repudiated as “appalling and unhinged.”
There have been growing worries in Europe over the reliability of the decades-old U.S. commitment to European security — highlighted by the partisan gridlock in Washington over a crucial aid package to U.S. ally Ukraine — but Trump’s words are forcing Europeans to seriously consider an end to the transatlantic alliance.
“These are the words of a serious candidate for president so they should be treated seriously,” Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Paweł Zalewski told POLITICO. “If we do that, then it means a change to the logic of the U.S. presence in NATO. It is very worrying. He correctly calls on member countries to spend more on defense, but he also calls on Russia to attack. This is completely incomprehensible.
Speaking at a campaign rally in South Carolina, Trump said that while president he told NATO leaders that he would “encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want” to alliance members that are “delinquent” in meeting the group’s spending targets.
“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?’” Trump recalled during the rally. “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 to do whatever the hell they want.”
The remarks seem to suggest that Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, might not abide by NATO’s collective-defense clause for members that haven’t paid enough.
Trump’s comments were roundly criticized by officials across Europe.
“Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. “I expect the U.S. to remain a strong and devoted ally of NATO, whoever wins the presidential election.”
European Council President Charles Michel called Trump’s remarks “reckless” and said they “serve only Putin’s interest.” Germany’s foreign ministry said: “‘One for all and all for one’ — This NATO creed keeps more than 950 million people safe.”
The White House also blasted the comments as endangering security and stability. “Encouraging invasions of our closest allies by murderous regimes is appalling and unhinged and it endangers American national security, global stability, and our economy at home,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement.
A POLITICO report last month revealed that Trump had told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2020 that the U.S. wouldn’t come to Europe’s defense if it was attacked. Trump alleged NATO countries subsequently spent “billions and billions” of dollars on their defenses in the wake of his threat — a claim that has not been substantiated.
Trump’s remarks come as the Biden administration and Republicans in the U.S. Congress remain at odds over a $95.3 billion military aid package, $60 billion of which is for Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion.
Stoltenberg on Saturday warned about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belligerence and its implications for the Continent. “If Putin wins in Ukraine, there is no guarantee that Russian aggression will not spread to other countries,” Stoltenberg said in an interview with German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag.
“We have to prepare ourselves for a confrontation that could last decades,” Stoltenberg said.
Trump’s comments also show a misunderstanding of how NATO functions, There is no centralized budget that countries pay into. Rather, each country pays for its own defense; with an alliance-wide commitment to spend at least 2 percent of GDP by this year.