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Behind Trump’s Calls to Withdraw from NATO

During the first presidential debate on June 27, Joe Biden and Donald Trump went back and forth on a number of subjects, including immigration, abortion, and of course, most importantly, golf. But one topic that attentive listeners might have noticed the candidates breeze through came when Biden said, referring to Trump, “This is the guy who wants to get out of NATO.” Biden followed this by asking Trump, “[are] you going to stay in NATO, or are you gonna pull out of NATO?”

Trump’s Position 

Trump did not answer this question during the debate, and the conversation quickly transitioned to the next question, which was regarding the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. This led many voters to wonder what another Trump term would mean for the United States’ membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Although he did not directly answer Biden’s question during the debate, Trump did raise preexisting concerns regarding the US’ current relationship with NATO, saying, “The problem we have is that we spend all the money,” referring to NATO’s requirement that each member state devote at least 2% of its GDP to military spending. In June 2024, nine of the 32 member states failed to reach this target.

Trump is far from the first to raise concerns regarding European NATO members’ defense spending. In 2021, The RAND Corporation published a report outlining Europe’s lack of “strategic autonomy” and found that greater investment in multilateral partnerships, like NATO, appears to be one way to boost Europe’s defense capabilities. The report also argues that lacking defense investment in Europe, if unaddressed, would weaken the NATO alliance and even adversely affect the United States’ foreign policy capabilities. Similarly, a 2021 report by The Center for American Progress found that Europe’s decades-long military dependence on the United States has already undermined NATO’s strength and that increased European defense spending is the only way to revitalize the alliance.

Trump has made this argument before. During a February rally, he received criticism for saying he would not defend NATO countries that fail to reach their military spending requirements. In the same speech, Trump said he would even “encourage them [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want” to underspending members. This stance seems to conflict with Article 5 of NATO, which states that if any NATO member state is attacked, every other member state must consider it an attack on its own nation and defend its ally accordingly. If Trump plans on picking and choosing which allies to protect based on how much they spend, it would be in violation of Article 5.

To be clear, Trump has not said he would leave NATO immediately if he wins this year’s election. He has stated that he would instead leverage the idea of leaving NATO to get European member states to invest more money. Still, Biden has called these threats “dangerous” and “un-American.”

The Democrats’ Response

“The whole world heard it and the worst thing is he means it,” said the President during a speech at the White House regarding a Ukraine funding bill.

Further, Trump reportedly threatened to leave NATO in private multiple times during his first term, former advisors told the New York Times in 2019. It is unclear whether the president actually had intentions to do so, or if he was simply using the idea as leverage to coax European nations to increase defense spending.

In December, Congress passed legislation that would prevent the president from completely withdrawing from NATO without approval from the Senate or an act of Congress. However, Democratic lawmakers have admitted this legislation could not prevent Trump from taking away all support for the organization or even refusing to follow its rules. In other words, Trump could still de-facto withdraw from NATO.

A Decade of Progress

In response to criticism, Jason Miller, a senior advisor to Trump, stated that Trump’s current approach to European NATO funding has found success in the past, stating that “President Trump got our allies to increase their NATO spending by demanding they pay up, but Joe Biden went back to letting them take advantage of the American taxpayer.” Indeed, when Trump took office in 2016, only four non-US countries were meeting the 2% rule, and the (US-excluded) average percentage of GDP spent on defense within NATO was 1.4%. After his inauguration, Trump internally leveraged US membership. Over the last two administrations, 18 more countries have reached the 2% spending goal, the US-excluded average of GDP spent on defense has risen to 2.02%, and overall defense spending by non-US NATO members has increased by $510 billion.

These numbers are certainly impressive, but to credit it all to Trump would be dishonest. The overwhelming majority of these increases have occurred over the last two years, during the Biden administration and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which certainly served as a wake-up call for many countries in Europe to up their spending. In fact, at the end of Trump’s first term, only 9 countries were spending more than 2% of their GDP on defense. Now, under Biden, that number is 23. Of course, some of the increased spending under Biden should be credited to Trump as these agreements were made under his administration. But one question has yet to be answered: would Europe have followed through on these agreements if Russia didn’t invade Ukraine?

Trump has not specified how much of an increase in funding he wants to see from NATO or how many countries would need to rise above the 2% threshold for the United States to remain in NATO. These details hold massive importance because if nine NATO members, including eight European countries, are currently under the threshold even after two years of war in Ukraine, there must be a reason why.

Europe is at a Crossroads

A 2024 study conducted by Germany’s Ifo Institute found that there is still a €56 billion ($60 billion USD) defense spending deficit across European nations that are under the 2% mark. The same study also found that many of the underspending countries are already in massive amounts of debt. The European Union requires its member states to keep national debt under 60 percent of GDP. Seven of the eight European countries facing defense spending deficits are over this threshold, and four of them have national debt over 100 percent of their GDP.

This means increased defense spending in these countries would require massive budget cuts in other areas. 2023 Eurostat Data shows that on average, European Union member states have 81.7 percent of GDP in debt, which means budget cuts are already necessary. However, the EU’s “excessive deficit procedure” requires all countries in excess debt to present a four-to-seven-year plan to eliminate this debt in a way that is sustainable for the future. One variable that will also need to be considered is Europe’s energy transition, which has been estimated by the European Commission to cost member states a total of €396 to €575 billion annually until 2050. This means that for countries like Italy that have debt-to-GDP estimates at 140 percent, a simple question of priorities will need to be asked.

The apparent sacrifices necessary to meet spending goals likely mean that some European countries will be forced to bite the bullet and stay under 2%. The same cannot be said for Russia, a country with a reputation for sacrificing its citizens’ well-being in favor of greater military capabilities. In February 2024, an annual report conducted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies found that Russia is allocating nearly one-third of its national budget to defense. With such a massive amount of money going to the war, IISS estimates Russia will be able to continue fighting for two or three more years. With Russia continuing to spend large amounts on its military and Europe being unable to match these investments, it seems the responsibility will continue to fall on the United States to protect its allies. With this in mind, the United States cannot afford to get tunnel vision on Europe’s conflict. Although the threat of Russia certainly deserves attention, it is by no means the only global military threat. When considering the interests of our European allies, the US must also balance interests elsewhere, namely protecting Taiwan from the Chinese threat and finding a resolution to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

All of this means that if elected, Trump will have a big challenge in front of him if he wants every NATO member to spend more on their militaries. However, amid uncertainty regarding the future of NATO, no one contests the importance of the alliance for the pursuit of Western interests. During this week’s NATO summit, allies are set to announce an additional $40 billion of military assistance to Ukraine as well as take steps toward admitting Ukraine into the organization. This comes after the alliance successfully welcomed Sweden in March. Last month marked the completion of NATO’s largest joint exercise since the Cold War, with personnel from all thirty-two allies over the course of six months. Despite the difficult road ahead, NATO has shown no signs of fear.

Daniel Murrah
Daniel Murrah
North America Correspondent @ Atlas News. X: @AtlasDanielM

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