Biden says Trump’s NATO comments are ‘un-American.’ Does he have a point?

Donald Trump.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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What happened

While campaigning in South Carolina on Saturday, former President Donald Trump claimed to have told the president of “a big country” that he would “encourage” a Russian attack on NATO allies who don’t spend enough on their own defense.

“You didn't pay, you're delinquent?" Trump recalled himself saying. “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”

In keeping with his “America First” mantra, Trump has long been hostile to international alliances. And bad-mouthing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — which was established in 1949 to counter the ascendant Soviet Union and includes a commitment from member states to treat "an armed attack against one or more of them” as “an attack against them all” — is a regular part of his repertoire.

But Trump’s latest outburst took his usual rhetoric about so-called “delinquent” states a step further; never before had he said that he would actually invite Moscow to strike allies that America has spent the last 75 years vowing to defend.

Predictably, a firestorm ensued.

“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,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates.

President Biden also entered the fray on Tuesday, calling Trump’s comments “un-American” as well as “dangerous and shocking” while speaking at the White House.

“The whole world heard it, and the worst thing is he means it," Biden said.

Why there’s debate

Article 5 of NATO’s founding charter — the part about member states collectively coming to each other’s defense — isn’t legally binding. Instead, it depends on tradition and trust.

NATO states expect their allies — America chief among them — to honor their commitments; so do would-be aggressors like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long sought to recapture former Soviet states (such as Ukraine, which is not part of NATO).

These expectations, in turn, create a deterrent effect. So it’s no surprise that foreign-policy experts and European leaders are apoplectic.

“Once the commander in chief says, ‘I will not come to an ally’s aid if attacked,’ why would anyone fear NATO, regardless of what obligations still exist on paper?” The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum recently argued. “And once the Russians, or anyone else, no longer fear a U.S. response to an attack, then the chances that they will carry one out grow higher.”

What’s more, Trump’s critics say that he doesn’t even seem to understand how NATO works.

Member states are not required to pay “bills,” “dues” or “NATO fees,” despite Trump’s repeated claims to the contrary; the countries don't “owe us a tremendous amount of money” or “owe NATO billions of dollars.”

Rather, in recent decades NATO countries have agreed to bolster collective readiness by spending at least 2% of their gross domestic product on their own military budgets. Most have yet to meet that benchmark.

On the flip side, Trump’s defenders argue that he was president for four years and he didn’t end NATO then. Instead, they tend to frame his frequent anti-NATO tirades as a negotiating tactic — a bit of tough talk meant to pressure member states to invest more on defense. And sure enough, European states did increase their defense spending while Trump was in office — a trend that has continued, especially since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

More specifically, Trump allies say he was simply riffing in South Carolina about how his tough-talk has already had its intended effect — not previewing future plans. “I got them to pay up,” Trump boasted on Saturday. “Hundreds of billions of dollars came into NATO, and that’s why they have money today, because of what I did.”

What’s next

The big question is whether a reelected Trump would follow through on his most dramatic threats.

“At the NATO summit in 2018, [Trump] came very close to withdrawing from NATO right there at the summit,” his former national security adviser John Bolton told Politico this week. “He’s not negotiating [for bigger defense budgets] — because his goal here is not to strengthen NATO, it’s to lay the groundwork to get out.”


Trump just gave Putin a green light for future aggression

“The risk of a second Trump presidency bringing a destabilizing war in Europe is now enormous. Whether or not Trump actually would directly urge Russia to attack allied countries he considers to be deadbeats — or perhaps whose leaders merely fail to flatter him sufficiently — the fact that he has already publicly suggested this is provocation enough. He has now floated the idea that the United States would abandon its NATO allies. That bell can’t be unrung.” — Jonathan Chait, New York

Trump’s ‘America First’ supporters are OK with that

“Elements of the right despise Western democracies that they believe are ‘weak’ or ‘woke’ [and] they have disproportionate power in part because they can exploit a staggering amount of civic ignorance. Americans simply don’t know what NATO means to the United States. Many of them think we’re doing Europe some sort of favor by helping guarantee our allies’ security.” — David French, New York Times

But abandoning NATO is not in America’s best interest

“We’re not doing [NATO] out of charity. We’re doing it because it’s in our national interest, to have trade and investment and everything that goes with the world that’s not threatened by hostile, belligerent, aggressive nations. It’s true that probably most allies are free-riding to an extent on U.S. power — and they should pay more. But the answer when they don’t is not to cut off your nose to spite your face.” — Trump's former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, to Politico

The problem isn’t with Trump, but with countries that aren’t pulling their own weight

“NATO countries that don’t spend enough on defense, like Germany, are already encouraging Russian aggression and President Trump is simply ringing the warning bell. Strength, not weakness, deters aggression. Russia invaded Ukraine twice under Barack Obama and Joe Biden, but not under Donald Trump.” — Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, to the New York Times

And Trump has already helped to change that

“On some level, was Trump right? ... Did he successfully pressure the allies to stop being ‘delinquent’ on their bills and ‘pay up’? … 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).” — Fred Kaplan, Slate

Maybe NATO allies can avert disaster by continuing to increase their defense spending

“Prepare … for the possibility of an ultra-unilateralist second Trump term, because this time his people seem to have a plan. … The more Europe’s powers can show their commitment to spending more on defense, the greater the chance they may be able to counter Trump’s … radical challenge to … the foundational idea that an attack on one member is an attack on all.” — Alec Russell, Financial Times

And perhaps Article 5 itself is 'in need of reconsideration'

“NATO must become a force for peace, not endless war. … It is hard to believe Putin would try to topple more governments across eastern Europe. But he might well disrupt borders and stir Russian minority discontent in frontline states. … In that case Trump — and not just Trump — is entitled to ask what business is this of the US. It is not clear that Europe can give a convincing answer.” Simon Jenkins, The Guardian