Former President Donald Trump is facing criticism for another hot take on NATO.
You may remember, that during Trump’s 2016 campaign, he made headlines for saying that NATO was “obsolete,” and that the US shouldn’t be paying such a disproportionate amount of Europe’s defense bill.
The comments weren’t all that different from comments that American presidents, since Eisenhower, had been making about NATO – but Trump’s comments caused an outrage.
Here's what Trump said:
“You didn’t pay, you’re delinquent,…No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.”
Unpacking Donald Trump’s comments
Okay, let’s unpack Trump’s relatively brief, yet loaded, comment.
First, the comment comes from a place that is critical of European-NATO-members unwillingness to pay for the defense of Europe.
It’s true that the US spends more on defense, and more on European-specific-defense, than the European-NATO members. And there has been a commitment within NATO that every member spend 2% of their GDP on defense.
Now, Trump’s instinct here is essentially sound: that Europe, not America, should be paying for the defense of Europe.
Trump is hardly the first American president to make such a suggestion and the rationale here is strong: Europe should be the primary bankroller to the defense of Europe.
But Trump assumes that the European nations should be matching the US 2% GDP defense expenditures; Trump fails to consider that US spending might be far too high, and that the more modest European defense budgets are entirely adequate for the defense of Europe.
Is NATO Obsolete?
Either way, Trump’s instinct, that the US should do less in Europe has its merits. Further, Trump’s 2016 assertion, that NATO is obsolete, is worth exploring, yet is reflexively dismissed. NATO is, in the most technical sense, obsolete, as NATO was built to counter a threat that no longer exists: The Soviet Union. Of course, most of the foreign policy establishment will tell you that Putin’s Russia is just the modern, authoritarian reincarnation of the Soviet Union.
However, Putin’s Russia is not trying to export an economic system around the world, nor is Putin’s Russia even remotely close to being able to match the United States with respect to military, economic, or social power.
So, Ukrainian invasion notwithstanding, Putin’s threat is hardly equivalent to the Soviet threat.
Where Donald Trump Is Wrong
Where Trump’s latest comments go too far, are in the suggestion that should a NATO member fail to pay their fair share, Trump would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want.”
Now, that’s a problem. Russia is a revisionist state, after all, openly hostile to American influence and strategic objectives. The idea that a US president would encourage Russia to do what they want, even when Russia has demonstrated a propensity for doing things that cut against the interest of the US and her allies, is shortsighted.
While an argument could be made that too much emphasis is placed on the utterances of world leaders, Trump isn’t doing anyone any favors with his latest comments. Trump should be able to offer an honest assessment of NATO’s utility, and of US defense spending relative to her allies. Fine.
But Trump ought to restrain himself from granting a US rival license to operate freely. In a perfect world, Trump would lead a government that deters Russian aggression, and upholds US interests, at minimal (even zero) fiscal or military cost. Yet, Trump’s comments potentially chip away at US deterrence.
About the Author: Harrison Kass
Harrison Kass is a defense and national security writer with over 1,000 total pieces on issues involving global affairs. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore.