Former U.S. President Donald Trump stunned officials on both sides of the Atlantic over the weekend when he appeared to invite Russia to invade NATO members that do not meet their defense spending obligations.
The Republican front-runner, who is making his third bid for the presidency against incumbent President Joe Biden, bragged to a rally of his supporters in South Carolina that when he was in office, he told an unnamed NATO member that he would “encourage” the Kremlin to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries that are “delinquent.”
“‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’” Trump recounted saying. “‘No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.’”
Trump has a long history of making incendiary remarks about the military alliance. As president, he routinely railed against member states that failed to meet the 2 percent minimum defense spending goal and told aides on a number of occasions that he wanted the United States to withdraw from NATO altogether.
To a degree, officials in Europe and Washington have grown accustomed to the former president’s inflammatory remarks at rallies that are intended to rile his supporters. And, in fact, Trump even told a similar version of this story about his conversation with an unnamed NATO member while speaking at a Heritage Foundation event in Florida in 2022. A fellow leader said, “‘Does that mean that you won’t protect us in case—if we don’t pay, you won’t protect us from Russia’—was the Soviet Union, but now Russia,” Trump said. “I said, ‘That’s exactly what it means.’”
But even by these standards, Trump’s further statement that he would not just decline to protect a fellow NATO country against Russia but that he would encourage Russia to attack fellow members of the alliance rattled leaders on both sides of the Atlantic and drew sharp rebuke.
“This took it to a new level,” said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration. “This is talking about—in a cavalier way—throwing an ally to the wolves,” he said.
Biden called the comments “appalling and dangerous” and the mark of someone promising to rule as a dictator. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Trump’s language “undermines our security.” European Council President Charles Michel said the statements “serve only [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s interest.”
Some took it even further. “American democracy is sick,” said Thierry Breton, the European Union’s internal markets chief. “It would be enough to make [former U.S. President Ronald] Reagan ill,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff.
Trump’s remarks came as Russia has committed a third of its annual state budget to defense and U.S. officials say Moscow’s ultimate goal of permanently undermining Ukraine’s independence remains unchanged. And with opinion polls showing a close race between Trump and Biden, European officials have quietly been looking for ways to insulate the continent in the event of a second Trump presidency. Since the outset of the invasion, European officials have routinely warned that if Russia were to succeed in Ukraine, it would embolden the Russian president to set his sights on other countries in Europe.
“If we cannot manage, together with the U.S., to stop Russia in Ukraine, it’s a matter of time if it is a war against NATO in general, and that will be much higher cost,” said Aron Emilsson, chair of the Swedish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, on a visit to Washington last week.
Trump has a long-standing affinity for Putin. At a summit in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018, he sided with the Russian leader over his own intelligence community regarding Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump called on Russia to find thousands of emails missing from the personal server of his rival, Hillary Clinton. “Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said at a press conference, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Later that day, Russian intelligence operatives targeted Clinton’s office and dozens of email accounts associated with the campaign, according to an indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers involved in the hacking efforts.
“Sometimes, dictators interpret such words as an invitation to act,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, chair of the Lithuanian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, speaking about Trump’s comments regarding NATO over the weekend.
Trump was not the first U.S. president to urge allies to meet the alliance’s spending goals. Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both pressed member states to bolster their defense spending, a frustration shared by countries on the alliance’s eastern flank that have long felt that they shoulder a disproportionate amount of responsibility, said Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.
“It’s no secret that Europeans need to take their security more seriously,” Rizzo said.
European countries have ramped up defense spending over the past decade, spurred by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Washington’s strategic pivot to focusing on the Indo-Pacific, Rizzo said.
The NATO of today is a very different one than when Trump left the White House. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted many members to scrutinize their own defense spending and military readiness. Defense spending surged, as did investments in arms manufacturing and procurement.
Three days after the invasion began, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that the invasion was a turning point for Germany, long a laggard on defense spending, and Berlin would be setting new targets to reach the alliance minimum spending threshold of 2 percent.
But even as more countries are gaining momentum to hit NATO’s defense spending target—2 percent of GDP—the European Union is set to miss its target of providing a million artillery shells to Ukraine by March. “At this moment, the West is not prepared for serious military action,” said Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s former defense minister.
In Washington, Congress quietly passed legislation as part of the 2024 defense budget to prevent any U.S. president from unilaterally withdrawing from the alliance without first securing Senate approval or an act of Congress. The measure, which has bipartisan backing, was widely seen as an effort to “Trump-proof” U.S. membership in the alliance.
But experts said his remarks could still do significant damage to undermine the standing of the military alliance, which relies on the unanimous consent of members to make almost any significant decision.
“For a long time, people were worried about the mechanics of U.S. withdrawal from NATO, but that’s actually not the most important thing,” Rizzo said. “The most important thing is how the United States could potentially act as an ally within NATO and how from within it could undermine it,” she said.
NATO can only enforce Article 5, the alliance’s self-defense clause, if all 31 nations agree to do it—even if they’re not contributing troops. If Russia were to test Article 5, the fear is that a prospective President Trump could leave allies guessing about whether or not the United States would come to their aid.
“If he becomes president again and something happens, suddenly we’re going to be testing that theory,” Townsend said. “[You’re] holding your breath that he’s going to say, look, Estonia is not worth fighting for.”