Trump threats against NATO and Europe – what does that mean?

Donald Trump is outraged – now with a threat towards NATO and Europe. What does the Republican want with this? And maybe he is even right? What you need to know now.

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What does the future of NATO look like if Donald Trump becomes US President again? Since last weekend, this question has become more pressing than ever before. The Republican made it clear during a campaign appearance that he would not provide American support to allies with low defense spending in the event of a Russian attack. The outrage is great. Rightly so?

What exactly did Trump say?

The Republican told his supporters at a campaign rally in the US state of South Carolina that the “president of a great country” once asked him whether the US would still protect his country from Russia even if it did not pay for defense spending. He then replied: “No, I wouldn’t protect you.” What’s more, he would “even encourage Russia to do whatever the hell they want.”

Who could have asked Trump the question?

Trump said nothing about it – in the end he even left it open whether he was reporting a true or fictional event. The Republican also said: “Let’s assume that happened.”

EU Commissioner Thierry Breton expressed the suspicion on the French broadcaster LCI that Trump may have been referring to a conversation with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and was only talking about the president of a large country because of a “small memory problem”. According to the news portal “Politico”, Breton had recently reported on this at a party event. Trump is reported to have said during the 2020 conversation at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “You have to understand that we will never come to help you and support you if Europe is attacked – and by the way: NATO is dead, and so are we will leave NATO.”

Why are Trump’s statements considered problematic?

As a defense alliance, NATO relies on the principle of deterrence and Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is particularly relevant to this. It regulates the obligation of assistance in the alliance and states that an armed attack against one or more allies is viewed as an attack against all. By making it clear that allies with, in his view, too low defense spending could not count on US aid under him as president, Trump is counteracting the principle of deterrence. The matter is particularly critical because the USA is a nuclear superpower whose deterrent potential cannot be compensated for by other allies.

Which European allies do Trump think are paying too little?

Trump did not specify this recently – but this probably meant at least all alliance partners who do not achieve the NATO target of defense spending of two percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Most recently, these were particularly southern and western European countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal. NATO allies in close proximity to Russia, apart from Norway, would not fall under the Trump definition and actually have nothing to worry about. Finland, Latvia and Estonia were well over two percent in 2023. Also Poland and Lithuania, which border the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Whats up with Germany?

According to preliminary NATO figures, the Federal Republic only had defense spending of 1.6 percent of GDP last year. This year and in the coming years, the two percent mark is to be reached with the help of a special fund of 100 billion euros. If Trump only withheld support from states with spending less than two percent, Germany would be safe. According to NATO information, around 20 of the current 31 allies will probably reach the two percent target this year.

What is Trump’s goal?

That’s the big question. If his aim is to use his statements to persuade the allies to increase defense spending and take more personal responsibility, the Republican’s second term in office could end well for NATO. Things could look different if Trump really wanted to lead his country out of NATO – then the alliance’s existence would be questioned. The fact is that Trump’s course is not new. During his first term in office, he accused European allies such as Germany of having a free-rider attitude and at times even threatened that the USA would leave the alliance.

Doesn’t Trump have a point when he blames Europeans?

At least the Republican is not the first US president to accuse the Europeans of insufficient defense spending. At the 2014 NATO summit, it was the then Democratic President Barack Obama in particular who advocated the two percent target. In the past, NATO officials have even suggested behind closed doors that Trump’s time in office might not have been so bad for NATO. The idea behind it: Because of Trump, allies invested more in defense and ensured that the alliance was in a better position at the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

How does NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg see the debate?

The Norwegian reacted unusually sharply to Trump’s statements at the weekend. “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines our overall security, including that of the United States, and increases the risk to American and European soldiers,” he warned.

A few weeks earlier, Stoltenberg had been relatively relaxed about Donald Trump’s possible return to the White House. “I am confident that the USA will continue to commit to the transatlantic partnership – regardless of who is elected president,” he told the German Press Agency at the turn of the year. NATO makes the United States safer and stronger. No other major power in the world, neither Russia nor China, has anything comparable to what the United States has with NATO.

Does the war in Ukraine also play a role in the current discussion?

Yes. Many in NATO fear Trump not only because of his statements about the obligation to provide assistance, but also because he could initiate a change of course in the USA’s Ukraine policy. A horror scenario is that he reduces or completely stops US support for Ukraine – thereby ensuring that Russia has a great chance of success with its war of aggression.