McFAUL: Trump does not understand or value Nato and that’s very dangerous

McFAUL: Trump does not understand or value Nato and that’s very dangerous
Former US President and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump said that he would not protect any Nato member that has not spent enough on its own defence, and invited Nato’s enemies to “do what you like”. / bne IntelliNews
By Michael McFaul in Stanford February 14, 2024

In an interview with the New York Times in the summer of 2016, presidential candidate Donald Trump characterised the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) as a protection racket in which members pay their dues and then we – the United States – provide their security. It was such an inaccurate, ill-informed description of how Nato operates and why Nato is valuable to American national interests that I felt compelled to write a response in an op-ed in the Washington Post on July 25, 2016, called “Mr. Trump, NATO is an alliance, not a protection racket.” 

In this article, I explained how Nato worked, including the obvious fact that Nato countries do not pay us to protect them. At the 2014 Nato Summit in Wales, in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea, the alliance collectively set a goal for all members to spend two percent of GDP on defence. Setting a target for defense spending – a goal articulated, by the way, during Obama’s presidency, not during the Trump era – was intended to enhance the military capabilities of individual Nato members. At the time, it was clear that Trump did not understand how Nato worked.

Trump’s comments back in 2016 also showed that he did not understand why Nato was valuable to the United States. In my piece, I explained why and reminded Post readers that “Fuelling uncertainty about our security commitment to Nato in order to get the Latvians or Slovenians to increase their military budgets by a percentage point is not strategic. An alliance undermined by the loss of a credible commitment from its biggest military power quickly loses its value to everyone. Coercive statements designed to achieve short-term, marginal gains erode the most important element of deterrence certainty of collective action in response to threats.”

“The United States’ greatest “return on investment” from our alliances does not come from increases in their military spending. Peace is our return, a “dividend” that produces economic and security gains for the American people. The United States has benefited economically from peace and stability in Europe and Asia. Trade and investment with our allies in Europe over the past several decades have contributed trillions of dollars to US economic prosperity. The United States has also accrued tremendous security benefits from our alliances by avoiding war. Since the end of World War II Nato's success has allowed the United States to avoid sacrificing soldiers and treasure fighting in Europe.

“In that same article, I also emphasised that our allies have provided security to us too. In particular, “our allies have contributed directly to our security since we were attacked on September 11, 2001. The only time Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which declares that an attack on any member is an attack on all, has been invoked was to defend us, not one of our allies. In our common fight to defeat al-Qaeda and its ally the Taliban in Afghanistan, our NATO partners have lost more than 1,000 soldiers. Estonia was not attacked on 9/11, but Estonians went to war with us and died with us to defend our collective security goals”.”

Eight years later, these arguments remain true. But three disturbing new facts make these claims about Nato’s value to the United States even more important.

First, in eight years since making these inaccurate comments about Nato, Mr. Trump clearly has learned nothing about the value of allies and the dangers of not having them. In competing with China and Russia in the 21stcentury, our greatest advantage is our allies. As Winston Churchill said, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” Yet Trump still doesn’t get it. All those years of having former generals on his staff, like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis or former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, did not change Trump’s naïve, ill-informed views about the purposes of allies. That is dangerous, especially because Trump is unlikely to invite the likes of Mattis and McMaster to join his second national security team, should he win in November.

Second, Trump was even more outlandish in his disparaging remarks about Nato this past Saturday than he was eight years ago. Speaking at the rally in South Carolina, he encouraged Vladimir Putin to attack our Nato allies if they didn’t pay “their protection dues” to the United States! Read for yourselves:

You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent? No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them [Putin’s Russia] to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.” 

I cannot recall another instance in history when a US president invited an enemy to attack our allies. Imagine how those comments sound in Lithuania, Estonia, or Poland. I was in Vilnius last month and heard national security officials from these countries and others in the region express their nervousness about a Trump return to the White House before he made these comments. Their anxieties are now growing. 

Third, I got one thing wrong in my piece eight years ago. I wrote that “we are not on the verge of World War III today. Thankfully, destructive extremist ideologies backed up by millions-strong armies do not haunt European stability.” In that passage I was referring to Hitler and the 1930s, the last time that dangerous isolationist policies by the United States eventually helped produce catastrophic results for our security. But tragically today, there is again a new power haunting Europe’s stability – Putin’s Russia. This new threat thankfully does not possess a "millions-strong" army, but Russia’s military capacity is serious and growing. Putin’s ideas are not as extreme as Hitler’s, but they clearly motivate him to take risky, belligerent actions against neighbours, as we witnessed when he invaded Ukraine two years ago. The prospect of Putin attacking a Nato country when Nato is united and backed by its strongest member, the United States, is unlikely. However, the probability of a Russian attack on a Nato ally goes way up if Putin calculates that the United States will not come to the aid of its European allies. Trump’s comments last week undermined our credible commitment to defend our Nato allies.

And make no mistake: a conflict between a Nato member and Russia will eventually drag the United States into war, even if Trump is president, just as it happened in the run-up to World War II. The idea that the United States will remain neutral when Americans in Europe are killed and allies attacked is folly. It is certainly better to deter such a Russian attack and prevent war than fuel doubt about our commitment to Nato in a way that might encourage war. "Peace through strength," as Ronald Reagan championed, is much better than “War from weakness.”

Most American national security experts, including those in the Republican Party, I know embrace this basic, obvious logic. So do most lawmakers, including those in the Republican Party, in Congress. But there is one Republican who does not – Donald Trump, and he just happens to be the likely presidential nominee of the Republican Party. That is very dangerous, both for our allies in Europe and eventually for us.

Michael McFaul is a professor at Stamford, advisor to the Ukrainian government and the former US ambassador to Russia.

This comment first appeared in his substack here. Subscribe to his substack here.