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Trump’s comments on mutual defense pledge sound alarm bells in NATO

France has called on Europe to prepare for the Republican populist’s possible returns to the White House

Jens Stoltenberg and Jake Sullivan
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels on February 7.OLIVIER MATTHYS (EFE)
María R. Sahuquillo

The prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House amid Russia’s threat, the rise of China and the worst war scenario in half a century is of serious concern to NATO and its allies. At a Saturday rally, Trump — who is the front-runner to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination — warned NATO allies that he “would encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to countries that do not spend 2% of their GDP on defense.

The insinuation that under Trump, the United States would not protect NATO allies that do not invest enough in defense has cast doubt on Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which states that if a NATO ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and respond.

On Monday, French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné underscored the importance of the NATO alliance, and warned Europe to prepare for the Republican populist’s possible return to the White House. “Each minute counts to get Europeans prepared to absorb the shock of a scenario that has been well described by Donald Trump,” he said.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also commented on Trump’s statements. “NATO cannot be an à la carte military alliance, it cannot be a military alliance that works depending on the humor of the president of the U.S.” day to day, he said.

And on Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that “any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines our security.”

According to Michal Baranowski, managing director of GMF East, Trump’s words “call into question the credibility” of the United States as an ally. The expert argued that the former president’s comments are misleading. Trump implied that the 2% of GDP that NATO allies aim to spend on defense — a benchmark set at the 2014 Wales conference — goes directly to Washington, and accused countries that do not pay this figure of being “delinquents.” “That’s not how the Alliance works,” Baranowski told EL PAÍS by phone. “France, Germany, Poland, need to open the debate on what should be done in the face of a possible Trump presidency, both with regard to support for Ukraine and European security and defense,” he added

'The Three Musketeers'

“The EU’s and NATO’s philosophy” is like The Three Musketeers, said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, stressing that the principle was “one for all, all for one.” He made the comments on Monday in Paris before having lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has long since distanced himself from his 2019 comment that NATO was “experiencing brain death.”

Trump’s comments follow warnings from several European countries that Russia may try to undermine NATO in the next decade and even test Article 5 by attacking one of the 31 allies.

“Russia’s capacity to produce military equipment has increased tremendously,” Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen told Jyllands-Posten newspaper on Friday. “It cannot be ruled out that within a three- to five-year period, Russia will test Article 5 and NATO’s solidarity,” he said, explaining this forecast was based on “new information.”

Germany, Romania, Estonia, Belgium and Sweden have made similar comments. “We have to take into account that Vladimir Putin might even attack a NATO country one day. It is unlikely to happen now, but our experts expect a period of five to eight years in which this could be possible,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, a Social Democrat, said in a recent interview, in which he highlighted the need to prepare militarily and socially.

Meanwhile, Rob Bauer, head of NATO’s military committee, said that NATO faces the “most dangerous world in decades.” “We need a warfighting transformation of NATO,” he added.

Similar comments

Trump made similar comments in 2017, during his term in the White House, when he attacked NATO allies that were not spending 2% of GDP on defense. But his recent statements come at a challenging time for the European Union, which fears that it will be the sole supporter of Ukraine — particularly if Trump returns to the White House.

The former U.S. president has a complicated relationship with Ukraine. His first impeachment in 2019 was over a conversation he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in which he threatened to block military aid to the country if it did not investigate Joe Biden’s son’s business dealings in Ukraine. Trump is also perceived to be in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Camille Grand, Security and Defense specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), believes that Trump’s statements have made a delicate situation even more uncertain. “Having an unpredictable ally is very complicated,” she explained. Like Baranowski, Grand — a senior NATO official from 2016 to 2022 — believes it is time for European allies to assess whether they could adjust to a situation in which the U.S. plays less of a role in NATO.

NATO has not changed its alert level. Diplomatic sources suggest that the latest warnings are aimed at making citizens aware of the need to increase defense spending. The fact that the Kremlin has increased its capacity to produce military equipment so quickly is of great concern. In contrast, the European defense industry — which had been largely neglected until Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago — is moving slowly.

NATO sources point out that the U.S. presidential campaign and Trump’s heated rhetoric will spark further debate on NATO defense spending. Currently, only 11 countries meet the 2% of GDP benchmark: Poland, the United States, Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, the United Kingdom and Slovakia.

Since 2014 — when Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula via an illegal referendum — most NATO members have increased their military spending. This was particularly evident in 2022, when Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to the latest NATO report, only three countries reduced defense spending in 2023, with respect to 2014 levels: the United States, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

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