Even by his own exacting standards, Donald Trump’s remarks on Saturday about America’s responsibilities within Nato were deranged and destabilising. At a rally in South Carolina, the former president claimed that he had once been asked by the leader of a member-state not meeting its financial commitments to the alliance: “If we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” He had, he said, replied: “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”
To this, Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, responded clearly and correctly. “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US,” he said, “and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.” Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, rejected the remarks of the likely Republican presidential nominee as “not responsible or sensible”.
Before Trump’s first term in office, we were urged to take him “seriously, but not literally”. This was very bad advice. As is revealed in the memoirs of his former national security adviser, John Bolton, he seriously considered withdrawing from Nato altogether. At the alliance’s summit in Brussels in July 2018, Trump said to Mike Pompeo, the then US secretary of state, and Bolton: “We’re out… I want to say we’re leaving because we’re very unhappy.”
In the event, he stopped short of capriciously destroying the alliance founded in 1949 that did more than any other to maintain comparative stability during the Cold War; the alliance that confronted the Serbs as former Yugoslavia imploded in the Nineties; the alliance that, after 9/11, stood up for global collective security by invoking, for the first and only time, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. But it was a close-run thing, mercurial rather than considered.
Trump’s lurid remarks appeal to a sense of irritation and injustice that is widely felt by Americans
The problem is that, as so often, Trump’s latest lurid remarks appeal to a sense of irritation and injustice that is rarely expressed in such grotesque language but is nonetheless widely felt by Americans. It is striking that so many senior Republicans have supported what he said at the weekend. It is also worth noting that, according to polls, close to a quarter of Democrats no longer approve of Nato.
There are two strands to this disenchantment. One is the undoubted failure of most of the alliance’s members — 20 of the 31 — to meet their commitment to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence, notably France on 1.9 per cent and Germany on 1.6 per cent (the UK spends 2.2 per cent, compared to the US’s 3.3 per cent).
America’s resentment at this imbalance — the belief that, in effect, US taxpayers are subsidising European welfare systems by spending so much more on global defence — long predates Trump. Richard Nixon often grumbled that the allies of the US should shoulder more of the financial burden. Robert Gates, defence secretary under George Bush and Barack Obama, warned in 2011 that, if Europe’s military spending did not increase, “future US political leaders — those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in Nato worth the cost”.
In this context, it is also worth remembering that Trump’s slogan, America First, reflects one of the republic’s oldest principles. In his farewell address of 1796, George Washington urged his fellow citizens “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world”. It is magical thinking to assume that the “pax Americana” of the post-war era is the default geopolitical position. There is no intrinsic guarantee that Nato will remain robust, or even survive.
The bipolarity of the Cold War has been replaced by a world of chronic disorder in which Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and their proxies act as a loose-knit network, imperilling strategic and economic stability. The need for a steadfast alliance of free nations is greater than ever.
The two best ways for Nato to mark its 75th anniversary in Washington in July would be to accelerate the admission of Ukraine, and for those member states not presently meeting the two per cent spending commitment to undertake, in the form of a treaty, to do so by the end of the decade.
As is his way, Trump has raised the stakes in crass and chilling fashion. Pearl-clutching is an insufficient response. Nato must take action to prepare for the very real possibility that, all too soon, he will be back in the White House.
Matthew D’Ancona is an Evening Standard columnist