Shortly after former President Donald J. Trump took office, his staff explained how NATO’s mutual defense obligations work.
“You mean if Russia attacked Lithuania we would go to war with Russia?” he replied. “That’s crazy.”
Mr. Trump has never believed in the fundamental concept of a one-for-all and all-for-one Atlantic alliance. Indeed, he spent much of his four-year presidency undermining it, while strong-arming members into keeping their commitments to spend more on their own military under the threat of not coming to their aid otherwise.
But he took it to a whole new level over the weekend, declaring at a rally in South Carolina that not only would he not defend European countries he felt were lagging behind Russia’s attacks, he would go so far as to “encourage” Russia “to work whatever they want” against them. Never before had a President of the United States suggested that he would encourage an enemy to attack America’s allies.
Some may dismiss it as typical Trump rally hype or write it off as a poor attempt at humor. Others might even cheer for a hard line against supposedly dead allies who, in this view, have taken advantage of America’s friendship for too long. But Mr. Trump’s rhetoric hints at potentially far-reaching changes in the international order if he recaptures the White House in November with unpredictable consequences.
What’s more, Trump’s riff has reignited uncomfortable questions about his taste in friends. Encouraging Russia to attack NATO allies, even if he wasn’t entirely serious, is a stunning statement that underscores his strange affinity for President Vladimir V. Putin, who has already demonstrated his willingness to invade neighboring countries that lack NATO protection.
Long averse to alliances of any kind, Mr. Trump’s second term could effectively end the security umbrella that has protected friends in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East for much of the nearly eight decades since the end of World War II. The very suggestion that the United States cannot be relied on would negate the value of such alliances, encourage longtime friends to hedge and perhaps align with other powers, and embolden the likes of Mr. Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.
“Russia and China are no match for America’s allies, and those allies depend on American commitment,” said Douglas E. Lute, a retired lieutenant general who served as ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama and a senior adviser to the president. George W. Bush on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Casting doubt on the United States’ commitment to its allies sacrifices America’s greatest advantage vis-à-vis Russia and China, something that neither Putin nor Xi could achieve alone.”
Undeterred by criticism of his latest comment, Mr. Trump doubled down on Sunday.
“No money in the form of foreign aid should be given to any country unless it is done as a loan and not just a gift,” he wrote in capital letters on social media. “We should never again give money,” he added, “without hope of return, or without ‘ties.’
Mr. Trump has long threatened to withdraw the United States from NATO and will no longer be surrounded by advisers who prevented him from doing so last time. He tried to withdraw American troops from Germany at the end of his presidency in anger at Angela Merkel, then the chancellor, and the withdrawal was prevented only because President Biden took office in time to reverse the decision.
At other times, Mr Trump considered withdrawing US troops from South Korea, only to be talked out of it, but said after leaving office that such a move would be a priority in his second term unless South Korea paid more reparations . Mr Trump is also likely to cut military aid to Ukraine as it tries to fend off Russian invaders, and has not offered support for more aid to Israel in its war with Hamas.
Anticipating the possibility of an American withdrawal from the world if Mr. Trump is returned to office, Congress recently passed a bill that would bar any president from withdrawing from the NATO treaty without Senate approval. But Mr. Trump would not even need to formally leave the alliance to render it meaningless.
And if the United States could not be counted on to come to the aid of its partners in Europe, where it has the strongest historical ties, then other countries that have mutual defense agreements with Washington, such as Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama can hardly be sure of American aid.
Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor and former national security aide to Mr. Bush and President Bill Clinton, said Mr. Trump could cut American troops in Europe to a level that would “render any military defense plan hollow” and “regularly bad -determine US commitment” in a way that would assure Mr. Putin that he has a free hand.
“Just doing those two things could wound and possibly kill NATO,” Mr. Feaver. “And few allies or partners in other parts of the world would trust any US commitment after seeing us dismantle NATO.”
History suggests that this could result in more war, not less. When Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, in 1950 described an American “defensive perimeter” in Asia that did not include South Korea, North Korea invaded five months later, starting a bloody war that nevertheless dragged into the United States.
Mr. Trump’s signal to NATO allies like Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and, yes, Lithuania is that they could be on their own by next January. It comes just days after Putin told Tucker Carlson Poland was to blame for Adolf Hitler’s 1939 invasionthe mood in Warsaw could hardly be more unsettled.
“Article 5 has been invoked once so far — to help the US in Afghanistan after 9/11,” noted Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, in an email exchange on Sunday. “Poland sent a brigade for a decade. We didn’t send the bill to Washington.”
Mr. Trump’s disdain for NATO is based on a false premise that he has repeated for years even after being corrected, a sign that he is either unable to process information that contradicts the idea in his head or is willing to distort it. facts to suit his preferred narrative.
As he has done many times before, Mr Trump blasted NATO partners he called “delinquent” in paying for US protection. “You have to pay,” he said. “You have to pay your bills.”
In fact, NATO partners do not pay the United States, as Mr. Trump has implied. NATO members contribute to the common budget for civilian and military expenditures according to a formula based on national income and have historically met these obligations.
What Mr. Trump is getting wrong is the goal set by NATO defense ministers in 2006 for each member to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on its own military, a standard ratified by NATO leaders in 2014 with the goal of achieving by 2024. As of last year, only 11 out of 31 members reached that level, and last summer NATO leaders pledged a “permanent commitment” to finally reach it. But even those who aren’t, don’t owe the United States money because of it.
Among the members that spend 2 percent of their economic output on defense are Poland and Lithuania, and the number has risen in the past two years following Russia’s invasion of non-NATO Ukraine. Other countries have pledged to increase spending over the next few years.
NATO spending is a legitimate concern, according to national security veterans, and Mr. Trump is not the first president to pressure NATO partners to do more — both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama did. But Mr. Trump is the first to present the alliance as a kind of protection racket in which those who do not “pay up” will be abandoned by the United States, much less vulnerable to Russian attacks with Washington’s encouragement.
“NATO’s credibility rests on the credibility of the man who occupies the Oval Office, since the decisions made there in a critical situation will be decisive,” said Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden, which is completing its accession to NATO as the 32nd member.
“This is about what could be crisis management in a small engagement of some kind on the ultimate issue of nuclear deterrence,” he said. “If Putin threatened to nuke Poland, would Trump say he doesn’t care?”
Trump’s fixation on being paid by his allies extends beyond Europe. At one point he attacked the mutual defense treaty with Japan that had been in effect since 1951, and at other times he was preparing to order United States troops out of South Korea. During an interview in 2021, shortly after he left office, he made it clear that if he returned to power, he would demand that South Korea pay billions of dollars to keep US troops there.
(Actually, South Korea pays a billion dollars a year and spent $9.7 billion to expand Camp Humphreys for US forces; Mr. Trump has said he wants $5 billion a year.)
National security veterans from both parties said the thinking misunderstands the alliance’s value to the United States. The benefit to Americans, they say, is having overseas bases in places like Germany and South Korea that enable quick responses to crises around the world. It also deters the adventurism of rogue states like North Korea. “America’s commitment to its allies is not altruism or charity, but serves a vital national interest,” Mr. Lute said.
The uncertainty that would arise from Mr. Trump’s lack of commitment would lead to instability not seen in years.
“The only saving grace,” said Mr. Bilt, “is that it will probably be so unreliable and unpredictable that even the Kremlin would be somewhat uncertain. But they would know that they have a real chance to play him politically in any crisis.”