On a night of triumph, Donald Trump angers NATO allies and GOP foreign policy establishment

Hours before he accepted the Republican presidential nomination Thursday, Donald Trump faced fierce international criticism for suggesting his administration might not defend NATO allies in Eastern Europe and might not speak out for human rights abroad. 

A day that Trump’s team had hoped would celebrate his improbable triumph in the GOP instead shifted to concerns he would upend a network of U.S. security guarantees put in place after World War II and embraced or expanded by every president since.

Trump’s startling comments in an interview with the New York Times drew a swift and furious reaction from foreign diplomats as well as the GOP foreign policy establishment. 

The transatlantic alliance indirectly rebuked Trump for suggesting the U.S. might not defend a member state under attack, a growing concern for Poland, the three Baltic states and other NATO nations fearful of Russian aggression since its 2014 incursion in Ukraine.

In a statement from Brussels, the nearly-70-year-old organization said that solidarity was a “key value” of the 28-nation military alliance and noted that troops from member states had served alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In recent months, Trump has repeatedly kicked at cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy. Many of his recent critiques have centered on whether alliances credited with maintaining peace in postwar Europe and containing a bellicose North Korea are too expensive.

He went further in the latest interview, however.

Asked whether the three tiny Baltic nations — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — and other NATO allies could count on the U.S. pledge to defend them if Russia attacks, Trump said it would depend on whether the country had met its financial obligations.

“Have they fulfilled their obligations to us?” he said. “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”

He was reluctant to criticize mass arrests of thousands of judges, teachers, military officers and others by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since Friday’s failed coup attempt against him.

The European Union and Secretary of State John F. Kerry have urged Turkey to honor the rule of law and democratic values, but Trump suggested that such advice, coming from America, was out of line.

“Right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country,” he told the newspaper.

Trump also questioned anew the deployment of U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan to deter the North Korean threat and to counter China’s regional expansion in the South China Sea. 

Campaign manager Paul Manafort initially suggested Trump had been misquoted, but a transcript released by the newspaper matched quotations attributed to the candidate.

His son Eric Trump then mounted a staunch defense of the candidate’s comments. But he left it unclear whether his father might break treaty commitments to allies that fail to pay their share for defense.

“Right now, we subsidize the vast majority of NATO – how is that fair?” he told CBS News. “You have countries that are part of NATO and who don’t pay anything or pay very, very little.”

The foreign policy flap drew a scathing rebuke from the campaign of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival.

“It is fair to assume that Vladimir Putin is rooting for a Trump presidency,” said Jake Sullivan, a senior Clinton policy advisor. He suggested Trump has “a bizarre and occasionally obsequious fascination with Russia’s strongman.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was more forgiving. “I am willing to kind of chalk it up to a rookie mistake,” he tweeted.

Foreign officials and governments generally have been circumspect about Trump’s campaign pronouncements to avoid the appearance of meddling in U.S. domestic politics.

Some ended their public silence Thursday, however.

“Solidarity among allies is a key value for NATO,” alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. “This is good for European security and good for U.S. security. We defend one another.”

Wesley Clark, NATO’s supreme allied commander in the late 1990s, said Trump’s statements “[play] into Putin’s hands. [They undercut] the resolve of all the allies to remain faithful to the alliance.”

What’s at stake, Clark said, is how strongly Europe can fight Russian economic corruption, whether European nations will stand with the U.S. in resisting China’s use of the South China Sea, and even the strength of the European Union.

“Trump will say to Putin, ‘Let’s be friends.’ And Putin will respond, ‘Donald, I agree, let’s be friends. You are being used by these people in Eastern Europe. They are quarrelsome. We know these people. Let’s shake on it.’ It is called Yalta 2. It will be the end of the European Union and the collapse of the U.S.’s largest trading partner.”

Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, without referring to Trump by name, quickly tweeted that his nation is “equally committed to all our NATO allies, regardless of who they may be. That’s what makes them allies.”

Ilves wrote that Estonian troops had fought “with no caveats” alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where the post-Sept. 11 invasion marked the first invoking of a treaty article under which an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all. 

Latvia’s foreign minister, in Washington for meetings on confronting the threat from Islamic State, said “we in Latvia honor all NATO commitments and hope and expect our NATO allies to do the same.”

The minister, Edgars Rinkevics, said that by 2018, the Baltic state would meet a recommended NATO threshold for spending 2% of its gross domestic product on defense.

“We do our part,” he said in a telephone interview. “We take our commitments seriously, and expect that other nations will do so as well.”

Policy experts from across the political spectrum were flummoxed by Trump’s comments, with many calling his views incoherent.

“Mr. Trump clearly doesn’t understand what the word ‘treaty’ means, because a treaty means you have an obligation to those countries,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former supreme allied commander in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said Trump’s stance “undercuts NATO’s deterrent in Europe” and showed a fundamental misunderstanding of how the alliance works.

Some foreign policy experts branded Trump’s comments as an attempt, in effect, to monetize American defense obligations.

“Trump sees alliances as revenue-generating service,” tweeted Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Trump was turning U.S. foreign policy “on its head,” he wrote.

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, sarcastically posited that Trump could be right that the Korean peninsula might well be unified if not for the presence of U.S. troops – unified, he said, under control of the North.

“If you know anything about foreign policy, you can’t read that interview and not be terrified,” Drezner said.

The controversy comes days after Trump’s surrogates reportedly intervened to help rewrite a portion of the GOP platform in Cleveland to eliminate references to arming Ukraine in its fight with Russia.

Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, had worked as a campaign consultant for the now-ousted pro-Moscow president in Ukraine before Russia seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and provided support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Manafort was asked about the GOP position in Ukraine at a news conference in Cleveland, but he deflected the question, saying only that the world needs a “strong U.S. presence.”

Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist, said the change was “most unusual.”

“Virtually every Republican in Congress voted to provide defensive arms to Ukraine and they still support it,” said Black, now chairman of Prime Policy Group, a government relations firm. “This puts the platform on the side of the Obama administration and its weak response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.”

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Cleveland and Ralph Vartabedian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

laura.king@latimes.com

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

5:35 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander of NATO. 

This story was originally published at 7:35 a.m.

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