Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump trashed seven decades of U.S. policy toward Europe in one interview that left foreign policy experts and some in his party saying his approach could embolden Russia and make the world more dangerous.
By questioning whether the U.S. would defend its NATO allies equally, Trump appeared to be rolling back the alliance’s front lines further from Russia’s borders and providing a boost to President Vladimir Putin, two years after the Russian leader sent troops and armed supporters into Crimea and Ukraine.
“Here we have the NATO alliance that has just finished a meeting recently in Warsaw, pledging solidarity, increasing budgets, determined to fight ISIL and other activities directed against us, and I think any statement that would weaken that or undermine it is not in our interests,” former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, a Republican, said in an interview.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s charter is clear, he added: “You’re a member of NATO, if you’re attacked, we’ll be there.”
Trump’s statements ahead of his acceptance speech Thursday to the Republican convention in Cleveland were his strongest to date on NATO’s future and they sent alarms rippling through Europe. The Obama administration issued a swift rebuke, assuring allies that the U.S. pledge to the alliance is “ironclad.”
“There should be no mistake or miscalculation made about this country’s commitment” to NATO, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. Asked about the remarks, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. security commitment was “absolutely bedrock to our membership and to our partnership in NATO.”
In the interview with the New York Times, Trump criticized NATO members who don’t invest the 2 percent of gross domestic product the alliance calls for in defense spending. He said the U.S. should only defend member states attacked by Russia if those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”
Trump supporter and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went further, telling CBS News that NATO members should worry about the U.S. commitment, saying each country needs to “pay its fair share.”
When asked about defending the security of countries such as Estonia, Gingrich said that he’s not sure the U.S. should “risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.”
NATO allies in Europe responded quickly.
The alliance’s promise to defend it’s members is “an absolute commitment,” British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said Thursday in Washington. “It doesn’t come with conditions or caveats.”
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said on Twitter that his nation of 1.3 million people has fully met its financial obligations to NATO and that it “fought, with no caveats” in Afghanistan on behalf of the alliance.
Senate Republicans normally critical of Obama’s foreign policy backed the administration’s view. Trump’s statements “make the world more dangerous and the United States less safe,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who briefly ran against Trump in the Republican primaries, said in a statement. “I’m 100 percent certain how Russian President Putin feels – he’s a very happy man.”
Support for NATO has been a bedrock of Republican policies for decades, dating to General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s leadership of the alliance before he stepped down to run and win the presidency as a Republican in 1952. His GOP successors have backed NATO ever since:
* Richard Nixon, Naples, 1970: “What we must realize is that in a period of instability, of uncertainty, and of possible lack of confidence, that what is needed is an institution that people can believe in, an institution that is strong, an institution that is stable, that men and women can hang onto; and NATO is such an institution.”
* Ronald Reagan, radio address, 1988: “I found this week in Brussels what the Atlantic alliance has demonstrated now for 40 years: that a peace built on strength can and will endure.”
* George H.W. Bush, 1990, London: “Some ask if NATO is still necessary, and our answer is unequivocally yes, because free nations must stand together in an uncertain world.”
* George W. Bush, 2005, Brussels: “The relationship between the United States and Europe is a vital relationship, a necessary relationship, an important relationship and our relationship within NATO is the cornerstone of that relationship.”
The Republican foreign policy establishment had been wary of Trump’s world views before Thursday’s interview. During a hearing on Capitol Hill in May, former Secretary of State James Baker said the U.S. would have “a hell of a lot more” problems if it abandoned NATO or let South Korea and Japan obtain nuclear weapons, two proposals floated by Trump during the campaign.
“NATO has been the foundation of peace and stability in Europe,” Baker said on May 12. “The more countries that obtain nuclear weapons the more instability there will be in the world.”
Obama has stood by the U.S. commitment to the alliance while expressing frustration that most members don’t meet their goal of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. In an interview published earlier this year in The Atlantic magazine, Obama called such countries “free riders.”
NATO, in a report released this month, estimated that five of the alliance’s 28 members — the U.S., Poland, the U.K., Greece and Estonia — would meet the 2 percent threshold in 2016.
At the heart of the NATO
treaty is an agreement that an armed attack against any member state in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all, allowing parties to take action against the aggressor. NATO calls the so-called Article 5 commitment a “cornerstone” of the alliance. It was invoked for the first time after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.
“Our Article 5 commitments should never be questioned,” Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said via e-mail. Yet Corker said he too was “exasperated that most members of the alliance are not honoring their obligations.”
Trump’s comments come less than two weeks after the NATO leaders agreed at their Warsaw summit to enhance deployment of forces in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia as a deterrent following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Long distrustful of NATO’s intentions, Putin is overseeing the
biggest buildup of his country’s military at its western border since the collapse of communism. The Kremlin is spending 20 trillion rubles ($314 billion) on an ambitious defense upgrade through 2020, while NATO’s plans involve rotating four battalions through the region.
Despite his frustration with the alliance, Obama called for $3.4 billion in his fiscal year 2017 budget for the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative “to increase security and reassure our NATO allies and partner states in Europe” in response to “increasing attempts by the Russian Federation to constrain the foreign and domestic policy choices of neighboring countries.”
Retired U.S. Army General Wesley K. Clark, a former NATO supreme allied commander who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, criticized Trump for stopping short of fully guaranteeing the security of all alliance members.
His interview “raises questions about America’s credibility in the world” and serves to “embolden potential adversaries and discourage and dishearten allies,” Clark said in an interview. “It complicates U.S. diplomacy on non-security issues. It emboldens Russian intelligence services to threaten and intimidate people in Eastern Europe.”
Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, tried to smooth over some of Trump’s comments, saying the U.S. would live up to its treaty obligations. He highlighted the $19 trillion in U.S. debt as a reason that allies need to “step up” and contribute more to NATO.
“I’m very confident that Donald Trump will stand by our allies,” Pence said Thursday on Fox News. “But at the same time we’re going to begin to say to allies around the world that the time has come for them and their citizens to begin to carry the financial costs.”
Undermining NATO would be a mistake, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, an Obama appointee, who cited a quote from former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill:
“There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is to fight without them.”