Why Trump encouraging Russia to attack NATO allies is as foolish as it is dangerous

Donald Trump repeatedly threatened to withdraw from NATO when he was president, complaining that the postwar alliance was a drain on U.S. resources. But at a campaign rally in South Carolina on Saturday, Trump went considerably further. He said he’d encourage Russia to attack NATO allies that he felt were “delinquent” in their contributions to the postwar alliance.

The comments were classic Trump: He demonstrated a misunderstanding of basic policy; he used the trappings of bravado to propose a reckless, destabilizing idea; and he contradicted his stated principles about war and peace.

Trump wasn’t just complaining about the idea of free-riding within NATO. He was floating the idea of destroying it altogether.

At a rally in South Carolina, Trump recounted an alleged conversation with the president of a “big country” and supposed NATO member.

“Well sir, if we don’t pay, and we’re attacked by Russia — will you protect us?” Trump quoted the president as allegedly asking him. 

Trump continued: “I said: ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’ He said: ‘Yes, let’s say that happened.’ No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay,” Trump said.

There are few issues to unpack here. 

Trump’s use of “delinquent” is a reminder that he thinks of the U.S. as a landlord who collects money from other members of NATO, or as if the alliance is primarily a dues-paying organization. All NATO members do put some money toward shared funds, but the main issue at stake is how the countries spend money on their own defense budgets. Unlike the U.S., most NATO members fail to hit the alliance’s agreed-upon target of individually spending 2% of their gross domestic product on national defense. The idea behind the target is to incentivize a certain level of military readiness and strength across the alliance. But despite what Trump implies, when countries fail to hit that target — and most NATO members do, including Germany, France, Canada and Italy — they are not falling behind on owed payments, nor is the U.S. losing money.  

Trump might want to justify his inflammatory rhetoric as a hardball tactic intended to ensure other NATO countries aren’t free-riding on the U.S.’s exceptional defense expenditures — around 3.5% of its GDP. But the U.S. doesn’t spend that much money out of beneficence toward NATO. It spends that amount because it has sought to position itself as the world’s sole superpower, and uses global deployments of its military to secure its geostrategic interests. In all his complaining about NATO allies, Trump neglects to ever discuss the option of the U.S. simply spending less of its own money on military spending. (Considering that the U.S. accounts for an astonishing 40% of the world’s military spending, and has pursued one reckless war of domination after another in the postwar era, this is something I believe the U.S. should do.) But while in office, Trump in fact pursued increases in the U.S. defense budget. 

In his extreme statement about letting Russia attack NATO members, Trump wasn’t just complaining about the idea of free-riding within NATO. He was floating the idea of destroying it altogether. The fundamental strength of NATO lies in Article 5 of its charter, which holds that an armed attack against one of its members represents an attack on all of its members; that agreement deters violence against every NATO member because it guarantees powerful collective retaliation. Trump is suggesting that, if he were to re-enter office, the U.S. might not fulfill its obligations under that charter — and might even delight in the idea of the alliance falling apart as “delinquent” nations are punished by Moscow. 

Even if Trump thinks of his rhetoric as bluffing, the reality is that his words could actually incraease the odds of Russia or other adversaries of the U.S. to try to call him on his bluff and see what happens by attacking a U.S. ally. That in turn illustrates the false promise of Trump’s claim that he represents a dovish alternative to Biden. Trump is constantly willing to play with fire when it comes to withdrawing from or corroding the reliability of international agreements — such as unraveling the Iran nuclear deal — which increases the likelihood of sparking global conflict or pulling the U.S. into another war. 

Even under an America First worldview, there is no rational argument in favor of U.S. security that involves trying to unravel NATO. If Trump is really concerned about narrowly defending U.S. security interests, then sticking with NATO — even with allies spending less money on security than he considers desirable — is a no-brainer. One can’t help but feel that this isn’t about U.S. security, but about Trump trying to convince his followers that behaving unpredictably and imperiously is the same thing as effective leadership.

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