Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sent alarm rippling through Eastern Europe after he said the U.S. would only defend NATO states attacked by Russia if those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us,” his strongest comments to date on the military alliance’s future if he enters the White House.
In an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday, the billionaire cast doubt on whether he would automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization the assurance that they have U.S. military support in the event of an attack. He specifically referred to the three small Baltic states which share borders with Russia.
Trump’s remarks are “both dangerous and irresponsible,” Ojars Kalnins, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in Latvia’s parliament, said in an interview with Latvian radio Thursday. “This won’t be good for NATO unity or the security situation. In principle, he is saying the U.S. will not fulfill its promises or obligations.”
The candidate’s readiness to reject a decades-long commitment to defend allies deepens his criticism of NATO after he called it “obsolete” in April while campaigning for the nomination. Trump’s comments sparked criticism both in the U.S. and overseas, coming less than two weeks after the NATO summit in Warsaw agreed to enhance deployment of forces in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia as a deterrent following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin is overseeing the biggest Russian military buildup 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.
“Estonia’s commitment to our NATO obligations is beyond doubt and so should be the commitments by others,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mariann Sudakov said by e-mail Thursday.
The role of the U.S. in NATO has “been confirmed by the decisions of the Warsaw summit,” Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Rafal Sobczak said by e-mail.
White House Disagrees
Reaction in the U.S. was swift to Trump’s interview and broke down largely along party lines in the midst of a heated presidential election. "There should be no mistake or miscalculation made about this country’s commitment toward the trans-Atlantic alliance," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday.
The U.S. president “is supposed to be the leader of the free world. Donald Trump apparently doesn’t even believe in the free world,” Jake Sullivan, senior policy adviser to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, said in an e-mailed statement. Trump’s unwillingness to maintain the “ironclad guarantee to our NATO allies” shows he’s “temperamentally unfit” to be commander-in-chief and it’s “fair to assume that Vladimir Putin is rooting for a Trump presidency,” Sullivan said.
Trump supporter Newt Gingrich, a former U.S. congressional leader, said NATO countries “ought to worry about our commitment," in an interview on "CBS This Morning." “Every president has been saying that the NATO countries do not pay their fair share."
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,” he 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 of these international obligations.”
Trump said the U.S. must be “properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost” of defending other countries, many of which are “extremely rich,” according to the newspaper’s transcript of the interview. Without such deals, “I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself’,” he said.
His warning to NATO allies follows successful efforts by Trump’s campaign team to remove proposals at this week’s Republican convention for a future administration to arm Ukraine in its conflict with Russian-backed separatists. Instead, the platform amendment pledged to offer only “appropriate assistance.”
The NATO treaty states 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 and it was invoked for the first time after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
“If Trump doubts NATO solidarity in the case of Article 5, then his election is dangerous for Baltic security,” Artis Pabriks, a former Latvian foreign and defense minister who’s now a member of the European Parliament, said on Twitter.
Estonia “fought, with no caveats, in NATO’s” operation under Article 5 in Afghanistan, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said on Twitter. It’s one of five NATO allies that meets its commitment to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, he said.
“We trust America” regardless of who’ll win the presidential election, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters, according to her press service. “It has always defended nations under attack and will do so in the future.”
Trump said in the interview that “Putin and I will get along very well,” and that he’d love a good relationship between the U.S. and Russia so that “instead of fighting each other we got along.”
He also said he wouldn’t “lecture” NATO ally Turkey about purges of political adversaries or crackdowns on civil liberties after the attempted coup in that country, saying the U.S. had first to “fix our own mess.”
Turkey on Thursday imposed a three-month state of emergency as the government pursues those it sees responsible for the failed takeover that left almost 250 people dead. Thousands of army officers, judges and prosecutors have been detained, and a wider purge is under way that encompasses universities, schools and the civil service. Financial markets have been thrown into turmoil.
Trump praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, giving him credit for seeing off the failed coup. “Some people say that it was staged, you know that,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
“When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger,” Trump said.
© Copyright 2022 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.