Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 11 February 2024


Donald Trump and NATO Deterrence


Riffing at a rally in South Carolina, Mr. Trump recalled a conversation with an unnamed head of state about how he’d respond if a NATO member that hadn’t spent enough on defense was attacked by Russia. “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?’” Mr. Trump told the crowd.

“‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’” the former President said he replied. ‘“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.’”

A charitable interpretation is that this is an extreme version of his boasts that he forced NATO countries in Europe to increase defense spending. There’s no doubt he coaxed more money from allies in his first term.

But this isn’t 2020 any more. Russia has invaded Ukraine, bombed its cities and civilians, mused about using nuclear weapons, and threatened Finland and Sweden for seeking to join NATO. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty pledges every member of the alliance to aid another treaty member if attacked. The only time it has been invoked was after the 9/11 attacks on America.

Deterrence depends on a combination of force and the will to use it. Mr. Trump’s boasts that he wouldn’t aid an ally will sow doubt in the minds of our allies and might encourage Mr. Putin to think he could get away with another invasion. Mr. Putin has all but said that the Baltic states are rightfully Russia’s.

Mr. Trump’s comments drew rebukes from several governments, and even the typically diplomatic NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “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,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “I expect that regardless of who wins the presidential election the U.S. will remain a strong and committed NATO Ally.”

Mr. Trump’s riff also comes in the context of his lobbying against more U.S. military aid for Ukraine. He boasts about his admiration for Mr. Putin, and his bromance with the dictator during their 2018 Helsinki summit was a low point of his Presidency. Mr. Trump now says he’ll end the war in Ukraine in 24 hours, even before he’s inaugurated. The only way to do that is to deny Ukraine more weapons and tell President Volodymyr Zelensky to give Mr. Putin what he wants. The word for that isn’t peace; it’s appeasement.

The U.S. should be having an election debate over the growing dangers to U.S. security and how to counter them. Instead we have an incumbent who has presided over the collapse of U.S. deterrence, and a GOP front-runner who dotes on dictators. No wonder Mr. Putin is looking so confident these days.

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