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Opinion

Editorial: Trump to allies: Pay up or we might not defend you

Donald Trump
Shown at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump said in a recent interview that he might back away from the mutual-defense promise of NATO.
(Jessica Griffin/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

In yet another display of cluelessness, Donald J. Trump suggested in an interview this week that as president, he might abandon some of America’s NATO allies if they were attacked. 

Although his comments in the New York Times echoed past statements he’s made, the fact that Trump is about to accept the Republican nomination made them especially irresponsible. So did the fact that Trump was referring specifically to the Baltic states, the former Soviet Republics that have been under escalating military pressure from Russia.

Asked whether NATO countries, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, could count on the U.S. to come to their aid if Russia attacked, Trump answered: “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.” 

In other words, his decision whether to live up to America’s treaty obligations to its allies would depend on whether they were generous enough in their financial contributions to NATO. Those comments prompted a chorus of condemnation from members of both political parties and raised alarm in Europe. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “Statements like these make the world more dangerous and the United States less safe.”

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Graham is right. Trump’s comments were an attack on the central premise of NATO, an organization that has been at the heart of the international order created after the Second World War and which has helped keep the peace in Europe for more than half a century.

Under Article 5 of the treaty that created NATO, an attack on one of the 28 member states is considered an attack on all of them, and requires each to “assist the party or parties so attacked.” A member state can’t shirk its obligation because it thinks the nation under attack hasn’t been spending enough on its military.

Statements like these make the world more dangerous and the United States less safe.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

It’s true that most NATO members do not spend 2% or more of their gross domestic product on defense, a target established by the alliance. (One of the countries that does is Estonia, whose president noted that Estonian forces participated in the only military action ever triggered by Article 5 — the war in Afghanistan that followed the 9/11 attacks on the United States.) The U.S. has called for other NATO member states to increase their contributions, and President Obama earlier this year complained about “free riders” in the alliance.

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But to use the threat of abandoning a NATO ally in the case of an attack as leverage to induce that country to spend more on defense would instantly undermine the principle of collective defense and deterrence from which the U.S. as well as its allies benefit. Trump doesn’t seem to understand that. For him, it’s all about the money.

The hint that Trump might not come to the rescue of the Baltic states was only one of the eyebrow-raising comments in the interview. Trump also questioned the utility of the U.S. military presence in South Korea — idly wondering whether North and South Korea might have reunited had the troops been withdrawn years ago — and he expressed a general skepticism about stationing U.S. forces abroad as a deterrent. “If we decide we have to defend the United States, we can always deploy” from America itself, he suggested, seemingly embracing the discredited concept of a Fortress America.

Legitimate questions can be raised about the mission of NATO, including whether it was wise to enlarge the alliance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s also appropriate to scrutinize particular U.S. military commitments to see whether they need to be modified or even ended. And it is reasonable to cast a critical and skeptical eye on new military commitments to make sure they further U.S. interests and have been well thought-out. 

But Trump isn’t engaging in a thoughtful reappraisal of foreign and defense policy. As always, he’s offering the sort of loose talk that can be excused in a television personality but not in the presidential nominee of a major party.

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