Thursday, February 22, 2024

Trump’s NATO-bashing comments rile allies, rekindle European fears

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Former president Donald Trump’s claim that he would encourage Russia to attack U.S. allies if they failed to spend enough on their defense pact set off fresh tremors Sunday across Washington and in European countries already worried about America’s reliability as an ally in a potential second Trump administration.

“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 told an audience at a campaign rally in South Carolina. “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 anecdote sparked cheers and applause from the attendees.

The Biden administration immediately blasted the remarks as “appalling and unhinged.”

Trump has long railed against what he sees as European countries freeloading on U.S. military largesse, but his claim over the weekend was provocative even by Trump’s standards.

It also evoked puzzlement in some quarters: No one, including former senior presidential advisers, could recall him ever saying such a thing to a fellow head of state, as he claimed.

The 25-second snippet from Trump’s Saturday night speech reverberated around the planet on Sunday as diplomats parsed the meaning of what many regarded as the most incendiary statement about NATO to date by a former president who repeatedly bashed the alliance during his tenure, while often speaking with admiration about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hours earlier, in a separate salvo aimed at another pillar of U.S. foreign policy, Trump vowed to effectively end U.S. aid to countries abroad. Economic development assistance and military aid to foreign countries — a mainstay for Democratic and Republican administrations for decades, partly intended to alleviate suffering and shore up U.S. national security abroad — would be replaced with a program of loans that would have to be repaid, Trump wrote in a posting on his social media platform, Truth Social.

“We should never give money anymore without the hope of a payback, or without ‘strings’ attached,” Trump said in a posting written in capital letters. Any loans would have to be immediately repaid if the recipient “ever turns against us, or strikes it rich sometime in the future,” he wrote.

The immediate reaction from European leaders and diplomats ranged from anger to weary resignation.

“Unfortunately, Trump does not surprise,” Marko Mihkelson, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian parliament, said in a text message. “The current presidential campaign only confirms that he has not changed his reckless attitude towards allies. Unfortunately, he is therefore a very convenient tool for Putin’s Russia, which is waging war against the West.”

Some European policymakers said that Trump’s rhetoric was a security threat to the continent. A senior German lawmaker who was a top foreign policy lieutenant of Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote that Europe needed to get ready to stand on its own.

“Everyone should watch this video from Trump and then understand that Europe may soon have no choice but to defend itself,” Norbert Röttgen wrote on his Facebook page. “We have to manage this because anything else would be surrender and self-abandonment!”

A Trump campaign official dismissed the backlash over the remarks from critics he termed “Democrat and media pearl-clutchers.”

“President Trump got our allies to increase their NATO spending by demanding they pay up, but Joe Biden went back to letting them take advantage of the American taxpayer,” Trump senior adviser Jason Miller said. “When you don’t pay your defense spending you can’t be surprised that you get more war.”

Trump’s remarks were part of a standard campaign-trail harangue against NATO allies who have failed to comply with a 2006 pledge to eventually raise military spending levels to 2 percent of their country’s GDP. In 2018, Trump shook up a summit of NATO allies in Brussels with harsh comments suggesting that the United States might not comply with its commitment to defend other alliance members from attack unless they paid more money.

Several diplomats who attended the 2018 summit — including senior Trump advisers — said the former’s president’s threats at the time were considerably milder than the version he recounted in his speech on Saturday.

John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser in 2018 and a now a vocal critic of his former boss, said Trump did, in fact, press NATO partners aggressively to increase military spending — an objective sought by multiple administrations over the past decades. “But he didn’t say anything about not defending anybody against Russia,” Bolton said in an interview.

Regarding the veracity of the anecdote, Bolton said Trump was “probably putting a bunch of things together in his head,” adding, “he makes these conversations up.”

“But even though the conversation may be made up, I think he believes it,” Bolton said. Bolton argues in a new edition of his 2020 memoir that Trump would likely seek to withdraw from NATO if elected to a second term.

“He wanted excuses to get out, whereas the rest of us wanted NATO allies to spend up to their commitments and more, because it’s for their own good and it would strengthen NATO,” Bolton said. “This is a case where you’ve got to take him literally.”

Trump’s anger toward European defense spending laggards was a throwback to his tumultuous term in office, when Europeans faced questions whether the United States would protect them if they were attacked by Russia.

Back then, many European policymakers ultimately decided that Trump’s public rhetoric was largely bluster, partly because the national security policymakers in his administration were generally drawn from the ranks of the Republican establishment. Bolton and then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were longtime Russia hawks, and they hemmed in some of Trump’s most unconventional defense ideas.

But Trump’s bluster, alongside a grim new war on the European continent, may have had some effect. NATO nations have significantly increased their defense spending since 2016 — with Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine serving as an extra spur to their investments. Of the six NATO nations that border Russia, only one, Norway, is still spending below the alliance’s annual defense goal of 2 percent of its gross domestic product. It says it will reach that level by 2026.

When President Biden came to office, he devoted much of his energy on the foreign policy front to patching up the transatlantic splits that came from the Trump years. Even before Ukraine was attacked, Biden had succeeded at stitching together Europeans to come to Kyiv’s aid. Germany — Trump’s main European punching bag — pivoted just days after the invasion by abandoning its decades-long reliance on Russian gas and promised to invest more aggressively in its military.

Still, American policymakers and experts have warned that Biden’s embrace of European allies masks a broader trend of increasing U.S. frustration with its central role undergirding Europe’s defense. Biden and Trump are among a dwindling generation of American leaders who matured during the Cold War, with younger leaders on both sides of the aisle less shaped by the legacy of rebuilding Europe after World War II and competition with the Soviet Union. Even before the Trump presidency, President Barack Obama also complained about European defense spending, albeit more politely.

The Republican Party’s accelerating abandonment of Ukraine in recent months is the latest warning sign, those policymakers say. For months, Biden’s $61 billion request for aid for Ukraine has stalled in Congress, even as Ukraine’s military runs out of shells and basic equipment on the front lines.

Congress has taken steps to make it harder for any future U.S. president to pull out of NATO — but Washington’s formal alliance commitments may be less relevant than the willingness of the White House to back its promises with military action, experts say.

NATO members’ Article 5 commitments are a promise to come to one another’s aid if attacked, not a formal legal requirement, so the alliance could be rendered irrelevant under a second Trump term even if the United States does not formally close up its mission inside the glassy NATO headquarters in Brussels.

At the same time, for all Europe’s security investments in recent years, it remains deeply dependent on Washington’s military umbrella. And some countries, including Germany, haven’t increased their spending as rapidly as leaders initially promised in the aftermath of Russia’s assault on Kyiv.

Many European policymakers on Sunday said that Trump’s comments were just another reminder that Europe needs to be less reliant on Washington.

Some policymakers from NATO countries that border Russia, accustomed to four years of Trump’s sniping at the alliance, said they weren’t immediately unnerved by his latest comments.

“I am not paid to be worried,” said Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics, who was at the 2018 NATO summit that Trump appeared to be referring to in his comments.

He noted that Latvia is spending 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, well above NATO commitments. “What is important,” he said, is that “Europe must spend more on defense, on capabilities and ramp-up defense production regardless who wins in the U.S. It is in our vital interest.”

Trump has “no values, no international expertise, a pure transactional mind-set,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a German member of European Parliament who is a member of the hawkish Green Party and one of the leading voices in his country pushing for increased defense investments. “So it’s a reminder to us. We need to get more serious about our own capabilities.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who was recently in Washington on a visit that including meetings with U.S. conservatives, said the alliance “remains ready and able to defend all Allies. Any attack on NATO will be met with a united and forceful response.”

But Stoltenberg acknowledged the harm of questioning collective defense. “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk,” he said in a prepared statement.

“I expect that regardless of who wins the presidential election the US will remain a strong and committed NATO Ally.”

In Washington, several political leaders expressed dismay over Trump’s speech, although a few Republicans tried to defend their party’s presumed standard-bearer. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), in a televised interview, said he believed Trump was just “telling a story.”

“Trump is not a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He doesn’t talk like a traditional politician. And we have already been through this now,” Rubio said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“He told the story about how he used leverage to get people to step up to the plate and become more active in NATO,” Rubio said. “Virtually every American president at some point in some way has complained about other countries in NATO not doing enough. Trump’s just the first one to express it in these terms.”

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who is running against Trump in the GOP primary race, said that, if elected president, she would honor U.S. commitments to NATO and would never side with “thugs.” Interviewed on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” she he said she would never “take the side of someone who has gone in and invaded a country and half a million people have died or been wounded because of Putin.”

Warrick and Birnbaum reported from Washington and Rauhala from Brussels. Mariana Alfaro in Washington contributed to this report.

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