Trump’s anger over NATO may push Europe to go it alone
Long before Donald J. Trump threatened over the weekend Because he was willing to let Russia “do whatever the hell it wants” against NATO allies who do not contribute enough to collective defense, European leaders have been quietly discussing how they can prepare for a world in which America withdraws from its position as the hub of the 75-year-old alliance.
Even given the usual bombast at one of his campaign rallies, where he made his statement on Saturday, Trump may now push the European debate to a much more public stage.
So far the debate in European media has focused on whether the former president, if returned to office, would withdraw the United States from NATO.
But the larger significance of his statement is that he may invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to choose a NATO country, as a warning and a lesson to the 30 or so countries about responding to Mr. Trump’s demands.
His statement stunned many in Europe, especially after three years in which President Biden, trying to restore trust in the alliance lost during Trump’s four years in office, repeatedly said the United States would do just that. “Defending every inch of NATO territory.” While White House spokesman Andrew Bates condemned Trump’s comments as “troubling,” by Sunday morning they had already resonated with those who argued that Europe could not rely on the United States to deter Russia.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, which groups Europe’s heads of government and sets their common policies, wrote that “reckless statements” like Trump’s “only serve Putin’s interests.” He wrote that it makes emerging European efforts more urgent to “develop its strategic independence and invest in its defence.”
In Berlin, Norbert Röttgen, a member of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, wrote on the social media platform X: “Everyone should watch this video of Trump to understand that Europe may soon have no choice but to defend itself.” He added: “Anything else would be tantamount to surrender and surrender to ourselves.”
All these doubts are bound to dominate Thursday’s meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels and then the Munich Security Conference, the annual gathering of national security leaders, on Friday. While Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will undoubtedly use this moment to celebrate the NATO solidarity that has been crucial to keeping Ukraine an independent state two years after the Russian invasion, any statements they make will almost certainly be met with rebuke. Doubts about what the alliance will look like in a year’s time.
In fact, this reassessment has been underway for months, some European diplomats and defense officials say, though they have only hinted at it publicly, if at all.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius started talking about this How should Germany prepare for the possibility of decades of confrontation? With Russia. Outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that the alliance must prepare for a “decades-long confrontation” with Russia.
In a statement issued on Sunday, Stoltenberg said: “Any suggestion that allies will not stand up for each other undermines our entire security, including that of the United States, and exposes American and European soldiers to increased danger.” “I expect that regardless of who wins the presidential election, the United States will remain a strong and committed NATO ally,” he added, echoing statements made by NATO members in 2016.
Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen said Russia could “test” NATO solidarity in three to five years by attacking one of its weaker members, in an attempt to break up the alliance by showing others will not come to its defense. “This was not a NATO assessment in 2023,” he told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. Danish newspaperlast week, describing it as “new information.”
At its core, the ongoing argument in Europe revolves around the question of whether NATO members can be sure that the US nuclear umbrella – the ultimate deterrent against a Russian invasion – will continue to cover NATO’s 31 member states.
Britain and France have their own small nuclear arsenals. If European NATO members doubt over the next year that the United States will remain committed to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which states that an attack on one constitutes an attack on all, this will inevitably revive the debate over who is Who will attack him? Other countries in Europe needed nuclear weapons of their own – starting with Germany.
During the last Cold War, that discussion was quite open, in a way that may seem shocking today. Konrad Adenauer, First Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, declared in 1957 that tactical nuclear weapons—the kind that Russia threatened to use in Ukraine—were nothing more than a further development of artillery. He added: “We cannot, of course, do without them.” He added at the 1962 meeting that the defense of Berlin “must be fought from the beginning with nuclear weapons.”
For six decades, the United States has helped dampen such sentiments by establishing them on an American base Nuclear weapons across Europe. They are still there to this day. But the value of that deterrence came into question when Mr. Trump — publicly and privately — pressured his aides to withdraw from NATO in 2018.
At the time, Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and two successive national security advisers, H.R. McMaster and John R. Bolton, sought to prevent Mr. Trump from sabotaging a cornerstone of the European defense strategy. Their fear was that American influence in Europe would be undermined and that Russia would become more emboldened.
This was of course before the Ukrainian war. Now questions that seemed theoretical to Europeans – starting with whether Mr. Putin would be willing to try to reclaim territory he believed rightfully belonged to Russia, back to Peter the Great – appear alive, and perhaps life-threatening.
When Olaf Scholz, the current German Chancellor, prepared last week to meet Biden in Washington, He wrote in the Wall Street Journal He added, “Russia’s victory in Ukraine will not only be the end of Ukraine as a free, democratic and independent country, but it will also significantly change the face of Europe.” It will “serve as a blueprint for other authoritarian leaders around the world.”
In Washington, Schulz confirmed that Germany is now the second largest provider of military aid to Ukraine, and was part of the European decision in recent weeks to provide $54 billion over the next four years for the country’s reconstruction.
This year, Germany will finally reach the target of spending 2% of its GDP on defense – the target set for all NATO countries – years later than it initially promised. The commitments Europe has now made to Ukraine go beyond Washington’s current promises, at a time when it is unclear whether Republicans in Congress will continue to block additional support.
Mr. Trump did not mention any of this in his threatening remarks on Saturday, of course; Europe’s escalation of the challenge, albeit belatedly, does not fit with his campaign rhetoric.
But what will resonate in capitals across Europe is the wording of what he described as a meeting with the unnamed president of a “big country.”
In Mr. Trump’s account, the leader asked him: “Well, sir, if we don’t pay up and we get attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” “No, I’m not going to protect you,” Mr. Trump recalled saying. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You have to pay.”
The story, considered implausible in many European capitals 75 years after the alliance was created, was to portray NATO as a protection racket rather than an alliance.
Whether Trump wins in November or not, the fact that such a vision of NATO has taken hold among so many Americans represents a shift that is bound to affect the view of the transatlantic alliance in Europe for years to come. .
Christopher F. Schwetz And Stephen Erlanger Contributed reporting from Berlin, and Matina Stevis-Grednev From Brussels.