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Trump never believed in NATO. The world just found out what that means

Undeterred by criticism of his latest comment, Trump doubled down.

“No money in the form of foreign aid should be given to any country unless it is done as a loan, not just a giveaway,” he wrote on social media in all capital letters. “We should never give money any more,” he added, “without the hope of a payback, or without ‘strings’ attached.”

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Trump has long threatened to withdraw the United States from NATO and would no longer be surrounded by the kind of advisers who stopped him from doing so last time. He tried to pull US troops out of Germany at the end of his presidency in anger at Angela Merkel, then the chancellor, a withdrawal that was prevented only because President Joe Biden came to office in time to rescind the decision.

Foreseeing the possibility of an American retreat from the world if Trump returns to office, Congress recently passed legislation banning any president from withdrawing from the NATO treaty without Senate approval. But Trump would not even need to formally quit the alliance to render it pointless.

And if the United States could not be counted on to come to the aid of partners in Europe, where it has the strongest historic ties, then other countries with mutual security agreements with Washington such as Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama could hardly be sure of US help either.

Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and former national security aide to Bush and former president Bill Clinton, said Trump could reduce US troops in Europe to a level that “would render any military defence plans hollow” and “regularly poor-mouth the US commitment” in a way that would convince Putin that he has free rein.

“Just doing those two things could wound and perhaps kill NATO,” Feaver said. “And few allies or partners in other parts of the world would trust any US commitment after seeing us break NATO.”

History suggests this could result in more war, not less. When Dean Acheson, the former secretary of state, described an American “defensive perimeter” in Asia in 1950 that did not include South Korea, North Korea invaded five months later, starting a bloody war that nonetheless pulled in the United States.

The signal from Trump to NATO allies such as Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and, yes, Lithuania is that they could be on their own by January. Coming just days after Putin told Tucker Carlson that Poland was at fault for Adolf Hitler invading it in 1939, the mood in the country could hardly be more unsettled.

“Article 5 has so far been invoked once – to help the US in Afghanistan after 9/11,” Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland, said. “Poland sent a brigade for a decade. We did not send a bill to Washington.”

The scorn for NATO that Trump expresses is based on a false premise that he has repeated for years even after being corrected, a sign that he is either incapable of processing information that conflicts with an idée fixe in his head or willing to distort facts to suit his preferred narrative.

Donald Trump has a strange habit of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin.Credit: AP

As he has many times, Trump castigated NATO partners that he called “delinquent” in paying for US protection. “You’ve got to pay,” he said. “You got to pay your bills.”

In fact, NATO partners do not pay the United States, as Trump implied. NATO members contribute to a common budget for civilian and military costs according to a formula based on national income and historically have met those obligations.

What Trump is referring to misleadingly is a goal set by NATO defence ministers in 2006 that each member spend 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on its own military, a standard ratified by NATO leaders in 2014 with the aspiration of achieving it by 2024. As of last year, just 11 of the 31 members achieved that level, and last summer NATO leaders pledged an “enduring commitment” to finally reaching it. But even those who have not do not owe money to the United States as a result.

Among the members that do spend 2 per cent of their economic output on defence are Poland and Lithuania, and the number has risen in the past two years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. Other nations have pledged to increase spending in the next few years.

NATO spending is a legitimate concern, according to national security veterans, and Trump is not the first president to press NATO partners to do more – Bush and Obama did as well. Trump is the first to present the alliance as a sort of protection racket where those who do not “pay up” will be abandoned by the United States, much less subject to attack by Russia with Washington’s encouragement.

“The credibility of NATO rests on the credibility of the man that occupies the Oval Office, since it’s the decisions taken there that in a critical situation will be decisive,” said Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, which is completing its accession to NATO as the 32nd member.

“This applies to what could be crisis management in a minor engagement of some sort to the ultimate issue of the nuclear deterrent,” he said. “If Putin threatened nuclear strikes against Poland, would Trump say that he doesn’t care?”

Trump’s fixation on being paid by allies extends beyond Europe. At one point he assailed the mutual defence treaty with Japan that has been in force since 1951 and at other points he prepared to order US troops out of South Korea. During an interview in 2021 shortly after leaving office, he made clear if he returned to power that he would demand South Korea pay billions of dollars to keep US troops there.

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In fact, South Korea pays $US1 billion a year and spent $US9.7 billion expanding Camp Humphreys for US forces; Trump said he wants $US5 billion a year.

The uncertainty that would result from Trump’s lack of commitment would lead to volatility unseen in years.

“The only saving grace,” Bildt said, “is that he will probably be so unreliable and unpredictable that even the Kremlin would be somewhat uncertain. But they would know that they have a fair chance of playing him politically in any crisis.”

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