Europeans spooked by spectre of Trump return after NATO comments
Top European officials rejected former US President Donald Trump’s comments on Sunday (11 February) after he suggested the United States might not protect NATO allies who aren’t spending enough on defence from a potential Russian attack.
During a political rally in South Carolina on Saturday (10 February), Trump suggested the US would not protect NATO allies, failing to spend enough on defence.
His comments came as Ukraine remains mired in its efforts to fight off Russia’s 2022 invasion and as US Republicans in Congress have become increasingly sceptical of providing additional military and financial aid to support the country as it struggles with stalled counteroffensives and weapons shortfalls.
They are also bound to dominate a meeting of NATO defence ministers on Thursday in Brussels and then the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of security leaders, next weekend.
‘Undermining our security’
Trump’s comments drew a swift rebuke from NATO and European allies.
“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”, said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in a written statement to the media.
“I expect that regardless of who wins the presidential election, the US will remain a strong and committed NATO Ally,” he said, reacting to Trump’s remarks, who will likely be the Republican nominee in this year’s US presidential election.
“Any attack on NATO will be met with a united and forceful response,” Stoltenberg added.
Article 5, the Western military alliance’s mutual defence clause, says that an armed attack against a member will be considered an attack against them all, triggering collective self-defence.
Polish Defence Minister Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, whose country is expected to reach nearly 3% GDP defence spending this year, weighed in to defend the principle.
“NATO’s motto ‘one for all, all for one’ is a concrete commitment. Undermining the credibility of allied countries means weakening the entire NATO,” he wrote on platform X.
“No election campaign is an excuse for playing with the security of the Alliance,” he added.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry posted the message ‘One for all and all for one’ with the hashtag #StrongerTogether on its X account following Trump’s comments.
European Council President Charles Michel said such “reckless statements” like Trump’s would “serve only Putin’s interest.”
“They do not bring more security or peace to the world,” he wrote on X, adding that “they reemphasise the need for the EU to urgently further develop its strategic autonomy and invest in its defence. And to keep our Alliance strong.”
Regarding Trump’s comments, European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, responsible for the defence file, said in an interview with France’s LCI television, “We have heard that before (…) Nothing new under the sun.”
“He maybe has issues with his memory; it was actually a female president, not of a country, but of the European Union,” Breton added, referring to European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and a conversation she had with Trump in 2020.
“We cannot flip a coin about our security every four years depending on this or that election, namely the US presidential election,” Breton said, adding EU leaders understood the bloc needed to boost its military spending and capacities.
Spectre of Trump
Trump and his team are increasingly confident he will achieve the Republican nomination in the coming weeks following victories in the first votes of the party’s 2024 nominating calendar.
“America’s leadership on the world stage and support for our allies is critical to keeping the American people safe here at home,” Biden said.
“If my opponent, Donald Trump, is able to regain power, he is making it clear as day that he will abandon our NATO allies if Russia attacks and allow Russia to ‘do whatever the hell they want’ with them,” Biden added.
NATO’s members in 2014 agreed on a target of spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, but the Western military alliance estimates have shown that only up to 11 of them are currently reaching the spending target.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump alarmed Western allies by warning that the US, under his leadership, might abandon its NATO treaty commitments and only come to the defence of countries that meet the alliance’s 2% GDP military spending.
Trump, as president, eventually endorsed NATO’s Article 5 mutual defence clause.
But he often depicted NATO allies as ‘free-riders’ on the US military and openly questioned the value of the military alliance that has defined American foreign policy for decades.
However, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, both NATO and its members have stepped up efforts to boost their spending and ramp up the European defence industry, which currently presents a very different situation than when Trump was in office.
European leaders have also started quietly discussing how they might prepare for a world in which the US removes itself as the core of the 75-year-old alliance, European diplomats say.