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Trump says he'd encourage Russia to attack 'delinquent' NATO members

The former U.S. president indicated that he would violate the North Atlantic Treaty if re-elected to the White House.

The NATO chief on a visit to the then-U.S. president in Nov. 2019
The NATO chief on a visit to the then-U.S. president in Nov. 2019 (AN/NATO)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, told a campaign rally he would "encourage" Russia to attack nations that fall short of NATO's defense spending targets.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reacted strongly on Sunday, saying Trump's remarks put soldiers at risk and the military alliance's 31 member nations remain committed to defending each other.

“NATO remains ready and able to defend all allies. Any attack on NATO will be met with a united and forceful response,” he said. “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”

Stoltenberg also said he expects that “regardless of who wins the presidential election, the U.S. will remain a strong and committed NATO ally.”

The bedrock of the 1948 North Atlantic Treaty is Article 5, which defines an attack against one member of the military alliance as an attack against all. But Trump's "America First" policies, fueled by populist and white nationalism, fray ties with traditional American partners.

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration also clapped back at Trump's remarks.

“Encouraging invasions of our closest allies by murderous regimes is appalling and unhinged – and it endangers American national security, global stability, and our economy at home," Biden's White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said.

On Saturday, two weeks before South Carolina's Republican presidential primary, Trump told a campaign rally at Coastal Carolina University that if he regains the presidency he would side with Moscow whenever a NATO member fails to pay a GDP-determined share of its budget.

He repeated a story about a NATO member confronting him over his threat not to defend members that fall short of the spending targets. At the rally, though, he took that further, saying he'd “encourage” Russia to attack.

“One of the presidents of a big country stood up, said, 'Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?’” Trump recalled telling the NATO member. “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. You gotta pay your bills."

NATO allies agreed to spending boost a decade ago

Trump’s rhetoric reflects debate among Republican lawmakers about whether to provide more foreign aid for Ukraine's war against Russia since Moscow's full-scale invasion in Feb. 22. Trump or his companies also have repeatedly refused to pay their bills, according to reports on thousands of lawsuits involving him.

By contrast, Biden declared at a NATO summit last year that he and other NATO leaders were “more united than ever.” Biden, as the Democratic Party leader, appears to be headed toward a rematch with Trump, the Republican front-runner, in the 2024 presidential election.

Trump made similar comments during his 2016 campaign, when he called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete” and suggested – in a bid to pressure traditional U.S. allies to spend more on defense – that America might not defend the alliance's members if they were attacked.

As president, Trump eventually endorsed NATO’s Article 5 but kept portraying NATO allies as freeloaders on U.S. military might. In 2022, however, Trump told the Heritage Foundation he had warned other leaders the U.S. might not adhere to Article 5.

NATO estimates of defense spending from 2014 to 2023
NATO estimates of defense spending from 2014 to 2023

U.S. military spending is 3.49% of GDP

Trump has called on NATO allies to spend as much as 4% of their GDP on defense, which would double the current target of 2% by this year. As president, he withdrew the United States from several international organizations and treaties – and raised the possibility of leaving NATO.

NATO allies agreed to halt their post-Cold War spending cuts and adopted the 2% target in 2014, after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. At that time, just three nations met the target.

Only a third of NATO members meet the 2% target. NATO figures put U.S. military spending at 3.49% of GDP, behind only Poland at 3.9%. The U.S. accounts for 70% of the alliance's US$1 trillion in military spending.

This story has been updated with additional details.