Monday, April 15, 2024

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Putin’s Ally in the West: How Trump’s NATO Stance Could Empower Russian Aggression and Endanger Europe

Trump's transactional view of NATO alarms allies, who warn his re-election could enable Putin's expansion.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
Yuri Kadobnov / AFP – Getty Images file

As the 2024 U.S. presidential election draws closer, concerns are mounting in Europe over the possibility of a second term for former president Donald Trump and what that could mean for the NATO alliance and stability on the continent.

Trump has never made a secret of his disdain for NATO, calling it “obsolete” during his 2016 campaign and complaining frequently as president that many member states were not paying their dues. While U.S. presidents before him also pressed allies to meet the alliance’s 2% GDP defense spending target, Trump went further by questioning the U.S. commitment to defend countries that fell short.

This rattled many European leaders and raised doubts about the durability of an alliance that has maintained stability in Europe since World War II. However, after much friction, Trump did not actually withdraw the U.S. from NATO, as some feared early in his presidency.

Now with the 2024 election on the horizon, Trump’s continued flirtation with a so called “America First” foreign policy focused on transactional alliances rather than shared values and interests has NATO members worried once again. In particular, they fear a newly elected Trump with nothing to lose politically could follow through on threats to pull back the American security umbrella that underpins European security and global stability.

Recent comments by Trump on the campaign trail have only exacerbated these concerns. He has repeatedly bashed NATO allies for not spending more on defense, while frequently praising Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Such rhetoric has European leaders concerned that four more years of Trump could severely undermine NATO solidarity and deterrence against Russian aggression. Some analysts warn that without strong American leadership and commitment to European security, NATO could become a hollow shell—essentially giving Putin a green light to pursue neo-imperialist ambitions in the region.

“If Trump were re-elected, we would face a situation in Europe that has not occurred since the end of the Second World War,” said Norbert Röttgen, a veteran German lawmaker. “Europe would have to stand up for its own security in an unprecedented way.”

There are concerns that the Baltic states, in particular, could be vulnerable if Russia tests NATO’s willingness to activate its mutual defense clause in the event of an attack on one of its members. The nightmare scenario for Europe is that Putin launches military action against the Baltics while simultaneously threatening nuclear retaliation to deter a NATO response. In that crisis situation, would Trump allow the U.S. military to come to the defense of our Baltic allies?  

Based on Trump’s past rhetoric, Putin would bet the answer is no—and that could set in motion a dangerous chain of events reminiscent of the 1930s that eventually resulted in World War 2. The future of European security and Western civilization itself depends on not finding out if he is right.

Trump’s overtures towards Putin have gone beyond mere praise and excuses for his aggression. Recently, Trump stated that he would encourage Putin to attack NATO member states if he secures re-election. Speaking to supporters at a rally in South Carolina, Trump boasted about an exchange from his time in office with an unnamed leader of a “big country” who had asked if the U.S. would protect them in the event of a Russian attack.

Trump claimed he told this leader that America would not lift a finger to protect their country if they did not pay their fair share for defense spending within NATO. “I said ‘You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent?’” Trump recalled to the cheering crowd. “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.”

These comments expose Trump’s deep misunderstanding of how NATO functions and the principles underpinning the alliance. NATO is not some sort of mafia protection scheme where countries pay dues in exchange for military defense from the Godfather across the Atlantic.

However, Trump has long viewed relationships, even with longtime allies, through a transactional lens. He still fails to comprehend that NATO members do not “owe” payments to the U.S. in return for protection. Instead, allies pledge to spend a percentage of their own GDP on their own defense to strengthen the alliance’s deterrence.

Sadly, Trump’s rhetoric exposes he still does not understand NATO’s true purpose – to safeguard transatlantic security and democracy. His misguided idea that NATO operates on dues could stem from his own past connections to organized crime figures and the New York mob during his real estate days. Having cut his teeth working with mafia-controlled construction companies and unions, perhaps Trump cannot help but view global affairs through a mobster’s lens.

Trump’s brazen admission that he would encourage Russian aggression against NATO allies risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Deterrence relies on perception – potential aggressors must believe any act of aggression will be met by the full force of the NATO alliance. If the U.S. president himself casts doubts, it plants dangerous ideas in the minds of foreign adversaries contemplating testing the alliance’s resolve.

For example, if Putin believes that America under Trump would not honor NATO commitments, he may test that assumption in Poland or elsewhere. Even if unsuccessful, this would still drag the alliance into crisis, perhaps fatally compromising its credibility.

Trump’s supporters dismiss his NATO comments as mere posturing. However, we cannot ignore these comments from the former president. Trump has shown for years through his fawning praise of Putin and attacks on the EU that his loyalty lies more with Russia than the United States and its European allies and partners.

A Trump presidency would result in NATO becoming a hollow shell incapable of deterring Russian expansion. Putin would have an open invitation from the American president himself to test the alliance’s resolve, perhaps through hybrid warfare intended to avoid triggering Article 5 commitments on paper while still destabilizing NATO unity.

We cannot allow this nightmare scenario to unfold, as nothing less than peace and democracy across Europe hangs in the balance. Trump has told us his plans plainly. The American people must listen and ensure our NATO allies can continue to count on us like they have since World War 2.