As Trump threatens NATO, is it time for Europe to get its act together?

Donald Trump’s threats to NATO allies must unite European leaders in the defence of Europe.

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At a recent campaign rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump appeared to invite Vladimir Putin’s Russia to invade any NATO member failing to meet the 2 per cent of GDP target for defence spending. 

While his comments appeared to be popular among the MAGA crowd attending the rally, they were immediately condemned on both sides of the Atlantic.

Donald Trump appeared to invite Vladimir Putin’s Russia to invade any NATO member failing to meet the 2 per cent of GDP target for defence spending. 

A White House spokesperson called the comments ‘appalling and unhinged’. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also responded in undiplomatic terms saying: ‘Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk’.

At one level Trump’s comments can simply be labelled campaign rhetoric. Promises made on the campaign trail are not necessarily commitments and most politicians normally walk back from such commitments once elected. However, Trump is not a conventional politician and this is not an isolated comment.

Trump supporters would argue that Europe has, to a degree, let the US foot the bill for European security both during and since the end of the Cold War. They would suggest his earlier threats while president contributed to an uplift in Europe’s defence effort. Trump had a point.

For much of his first term Trump was moderated by the so-called ‘grown-ups in the room’ including his various national security advisers, secretaries of state and defense secretaries. No such moderating influence looks likely in a second Trump administration and the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 aims to enable Trump to implement more of his policy goals from day one.

The problem of reigning in a second Trump presidency

Although the US presidential elections are still eight months away, and the result is far from inevitable, US Congress has passed legislation to ensure that no president can take the US out of NATO without their approval. However, this will not be enough.

NATO’s Article 5, the so-called ‘musketeer clause’, is not a rock-solid guarantee.

NATO’s Article 5, the so-called ‘musketeer clause’, is not a rock-solid guarantee. Rather it is a guarantee that an attack on one NATO member means the other NATO members will consider whether to respond. As president, Trump could simply choose not to respond and Congress would be left largely helpless. 

But Trump’s rhetoric also undermines Article 5 because the clause is supposed to have a deterrent effect on potential adversaries. Trump is undermining this deterrence and potentially encouraging Russia (and others) to act as they see fit.

Stoltenberg played a key, but understated, role in managing Trump’s relationship with NATO during Trump’s first term in office. His immediate response to these latest comments was also from someone with experience of interacting with Trump and the potential dangers he brings.  

As the relative size of the global economy shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the US commitment to Europe will inevitably diminish.

Interestingly, NATO defence ministers are due to meet this week. No doubt the US will emphasize its commitment to Europe and the Europeans will make some noise about improving their contribution – while praying for a second Biden term. All will publicly affirm their commitment to Article 5 and their support for Ukraine. Anything more will have to wait until their bosses meet at the July NATO summit in Washington DC.

Is it time for Europe to take responsibility for its own defence?

However, Trump’s rhetoric taps into broader US isolationist/nationalist strata that will remain even if Trump is prevented from running or loses the November presidential race. The Biden administration may have done much to restore the US–Europe relationship within NATO and lead the response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. However, the primary focus of the US remains China. As the relative size of the global economy shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the US commitment to Europe will inevitably diminish.

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In this regard, Trump’s comments are merely a wake-up call for Europe’s leaders and particularly those in Berlin, London and Paris. Europe has come too far and too much blood has been spilled turning the continent from the world’s most violent to one of the most peaceful. Whether Germany, the UK and France are prepared to act together is another matter. History tells us that it is rare for all three capitals to be in alignment but perhaps needs must.

The easiest option would simply be to ignore or merely condemn Trump’s rhetoric and do the minimum to keep the US paying for Europe’s defence. The braver, and more responsible, option would be to emphasize the need to build European defence capabilities and ensure Europe is able to deter Russia on its own, at least in the medium term. If Donald Trump cannot unite Europe’s leaders in the defence of Europe there really is little hope.