Donald Trump set off alarm bells in European capitals after suggesting he might not honor the core tenet of the NATO military alliance.
Trump said the U.S. would not necessarily defend new NATO members in the Baltics in the event of Russian attack if he were elected to the White House.
He told The New York Times in an interview published Thursday that doing so would depend on whether those countries had “fulfilled their obligations to us” in terms of their financial contributions to the alliance.
“You can’t forget the bills,” Trump told the paper. “They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.”
(h/t NBC News)
NATO is not just a defensive military alliance against a Russia that looks to expand, but it is also a projection of American influence in Europe. Some, like Trump, may take NATO for granted now but just 2 years prior Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from southern Ukraine.
Trump’s comments were perceived by some analysts as carte blanche for Russia to intimidate NATO allies and a potential harbinger of the alliance’s collapse, which would be a global crisis, were Trump to be elected.
NATO’s treaty states that an attack on one member state constitutes an attack on all, a principle enshrined in Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty.
“If Trump wants to put conditions through Article 5, he would endanger the whole alliance,” said Beyza Unal, a fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank.
Sarah Lain, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, agreed. She said that Article 5 is the “core” of NATO’s defense strategy.
“The suggestion that Trump may consider abandoning a guarantee of protection to fellow NATO countries would in some ways indeed make NATO obsolete,” Lain told NBC News in an email.
In an interview with the New York Times, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Trump’s comments a “rookie mistake.”
“I am willing to kind of chalk it up to a rookie mistake,” he said. “I don’t think there is anybody he would choose to be secretary of defense or secretary of state who would have a different view from my own.”
Two additional Senate Republicans, neither of whom is attending this week’s Republican National Convention, condemned his comments, suggesting Congress would not follow his lead on the issue if he is commander-in-chief.
“As [Russian President Vladimir] Putin revives Soviet-style aggression and the threat of violent Islam looms over European and American cities, the United States stands with our NATO allies,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., one of the most vocal elected officials in the never-Trump movement, said in a statement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump’s former Republican primary opponents, accused him of appeasing the Russian president with his assertions.
“I can only imagine how our allies in NATO, particularly the Balkan states, must feel after reading these comments from Mr. Trump. I’m 100 percent certain how Russian President Putin feels — he’s a very happy man,” Graham said.
“If Mr. Trump is serious about wanting to be commander-in-chief, he needs to better understand the job, which is to provide leadership for the United States and the free world,” Graham continued, also calling for Trump to “correct” his statements during his prime-time address Thursday evening.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, a former Air Force pilot, told ABC News he was deeply disturbed by Trump’s comments about NATO.
“To protect American first you have to have strong alliances,” he said. “This alliance has prevented 60 years of war.”
Trump’s comments, Kinzinger added, were “ridiculous and reckless,” and suggest that Trump doesn’t understand foreign policy.
Members of the Democratic Party also slammed Trump’s remarks, accusing him of friendliness with the same unsavory leaders with whom Republicans have accused President Barack Obama of being too conciliatory.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted that Republicans have long accused Obama of going on a “global apology tour.”
“I guess that means that there is some irony associated with the case that’s being made by the Republican nominee at this point,” Earnest said.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign condemned Trump’s remarks, also accusing him of cozying up to Putin.
“Over the course of this campaign, Trump has displayed a bizarre and occasionally obsequious fascination with Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin. And he has policy positions — and advisers — to match,” Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan said, citing a Washington Post report that Trump staffers persuaded convention delegates to strip language from the GOP platform that would have called for “providing lethal defensive weapons” to the Ukrainian military.
The White House has declined to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons, but mainstream Republicans have long called for the president to do so.
“Just this week, we learned that the Trump campaign went to great lengths to remove a plank from the GOP platform about aid to Ukraine that would have offended Putin, bucking a strongly held position within his own party … It is fair to assume that Vladimir Putin is rooting for a Trump presidency.”
Kingzinger, who isn’t sure if he’ll support Trump and has frequently criticized Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements, called the platform change “curious for sure.”
Although NATO does not frequently comment on issues related to member nations’ domestic politics, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, weighed in on Trump’s comments, defending European allies’ contributions to NATO while avoiding commenting on the election directly.
“European allies are also stepping up,” he said. “For the first time in many years, defense spending among European allies and Canada rose last year.”
Secretary of State John Kerry was also pulled in to the fracas Thursday, fielding a question about Trump’s comments at a press conference at the State Department.
Prefacing his comments by saying he wasn’t making a statement about the presidential race, Kerry said he would restate American policy towards NATO.
“This administration, like every administration Republican and Democrat alike since 1949, remains fully committed to the NATO alliance and to our security commitments under Article 5, which is absolutely bedrock to our membership and to our partnership with NATO.”
Trump was also questioned about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response to the failed military coup, and told the New York Times that the United States has “a lot of problems.”
“Our nominee is making the same arguments you hear in Russian propaganda and that you hear from left-wing liberals,” Kinzinger said of Trump’s criticisms.
Quick history of NATO.
Why is NATO still needed, even after the downfall of the Soviet Union?