From Tokyo to Tallinn, Trump has alarmed allies by saying the United States will leave them to defend themselves unless the governments “reimburse” Washington for defense costs.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children., Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Two years ago, President Barack Obama delivered a stern warning to Russia and an ironclad promise to NATO allies: The United States was prepared to go to war to defend Baltic countries from possible aggression.
The NATO treaty “is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all,” Obama said in a landmark speech in Tallinn, Estonia. “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has a different message for transatlantic allies and other U.S. partners: Pay up, or you’re pretty much on your own.
In an interview with the New York Times that has shocked Washington’s allies, Trump said if he were elected president, the United States would not automatically defend NATO members if they were invaded by Russia. Preventing Moscow from marching into other nations is, of course, the sole reason NATO was created in the first place.
If allies in Europe or Asia failed to pay their fair share for U.S. military assistance, Trump said: “Then, yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.'”
Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich went even further than the candidate himself, saying Thursday that NATO allies “ought to worry about our commitment” because he claimed they were failing to pull their weight.
Gingrich called transatlantic allies “a source of weakness, not a source of strength.” The former speaker of the House singled out Estonia, saying, “I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg.”
The comments by Trump and one of his top surrogates stand in stark contrast not only to Obama’s 2014 speech in Estonia, but to decades of U.S. diplomacy upheld by both Democratic and Republican presidents since the end of World War II.
If carried out by a future President Trump, the policies would also represent an effective surrender to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has spent years trying to undermine NATO, which he derides for accepting the membership of Baltic states he sees as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Over the past decade, Putin has used cyberweapons against Estonia; invaded Georgia; and annexed Crimea while sending uniformed troops and operatives to back separatist forces throughout eastern Ukraine.
From Harry Truman to the current commander in chief, Washington has never wavered in its commitment to the transatlantic alliance, viewing it as a bedrock of stability and an effective deterrent to Russia. The same unequivocal pledge of military support has applied to America’s defense treaty allies of Japan and South Korea, where Washington has worked to counter North Korea and China.
Trump, however, said this is “not 40 years ago” and that the country could no longer afford the cost of deploying military power around the world — including 28,000 troops in South Korea — without more financial help from its allies.
But the South Korean government pays about half of the U.S. basing and personnel costs in the country. The top U.S. commander in South Korea, Gen. Vincent Brooks, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April that “the Republic of Korea is carrying a significant load” of the American commitment there.
The Japanese government also pays many of the land-leasing costs for U.S. bases there, as well as a share of the utilities. The country’s budget earmarks about $4 billion for base-related expenses annually.
Trump’s comments come on the heels of U.S. Defense Department warnings that a resurgent Russia, which seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, represents the most serious national security danger facing the country. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said last year that Russia poses the lone “existential threat” to the United States. Republican lawmakers have repeated those warnings and charged the White House with moving too slowly to check Moscow.
Trump’s remarks stunned foreign ministries across Europe and Asia and prompted some diplomats to drop their customary reluctance to wade into a U.S. presidential race.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a blunt statement that two world wars had shown that peace in Europe was in the interest of the United States.
“Solidarity among allies is a key value for NATO. This is good for European security and good for U.S. security. We defend one another,” he said.
Others inside NATO privately pushed back, with one official telling Foreign Policy that those who think the alliance has been a free rider should remember that allied countries have “deployed a third of the troops in Afghanistan for over a decade, where over 1,000 soldiers from non-U.S. NATO allies and partners gave their lives.”
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s campaign pounced on Trump’s remarks as a betrayal of more than a half-century of bipartisan foreign policy.
“Ronald Reagan would be ashamed. Harry Truman would be ashamed,” Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s top policy advisor, said in a statement.
Slamming Trump for refusing to “commit to protecting our NATO allies against a Russian invasion,” Sullivan said: “It is fair to assume that Vladimir Putin is rooting for a Trump presidency.”
Trump has called the Russian president a “strong leader” and predicted he would be able to work with him while his campaign successfully watered down language in the GOP platform to remove calls for arming Ukraine’s forces against pro-Russian separatists.
Over the years, Trump has pursued business prospects in Russia, including trying to bring the Miss Universe beauty pageant there. And a number of his closest advisors have had business interests linked to Russia. His campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is a onetime consultant to the pro-Moscow former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. One of his military advisors, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, was invited to sit at Putin’s table at a December dinner in Moscow sponsored by RT, the government-funded news network. Flynn has declined to say whether he has been paid to appear as a guest on the channel.
Another advisor, Carter Page, a former consultant to Russia’s state-owned gas giant, Gazprom, has suggested Washington is to blame for raising tensions with Moscow over Ukraine.
At a lecture this month in Moscow, Page accused the United States of an “often hypocritical focus on democratization, inequality, corruption, and regime change.”
Trump’s remarks to the Times, delivered on the eve of his speech Thursday to the Republican National Convention, carried echoes of rhetoric from Moscow and other adversaries of the United States, which have accused Washington of double standards in its criticisms over human rights.
Asked about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s massive purge of the military, police, and universities after a failed coup last week, Trump said the United States should not be scolding other countries about civil liberties.
“Look [at] what’s happening with our country,” Trump said in the interview. “How are we going to lecture when people are shooting our policemen in cold blood?”
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, sought to defuse the uproar over the real estate mogul’s comments on Thursday, insisting that Trump would not abandon America’s partners overseas.
Pence, however, said he agreed with Trump that the United States must re-evaluate how it conducts business with its international partners. “We need to begin to look to our allies around the world and make sure they pay their fair share,” he said on Fox & Friends.
Declining to respond directly to Trump’s words, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Washington’s bond with the NATO alliance was unequivocal. “This enduring commitment has formed the basis of U.S. security policy toward Europe since the [alliance] treaty was signed in 1949,” he said.
The Latvian ambassador to the United States, Andris Razans, told FP that Trump’s remarks were making front-page news in his country.
Razans said a clear commitment among NATO members was more important than ever, given Russia’s recent aggressive behavior toward its neighbors in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states.
When asked about Trump’s recurring complaints that the majority of NATO countries fail to spend enough on defense, Razans said Latvia is making progress. By law, the country was required to reach the NATO target for military spending of 2 percent of GDP by 2018.
“What I can say is Latvia is a NATO ally and we very seriously honor our commitments of sending out troops in NATO operations in Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said.
If Russia were to decide to launch a full-scale assault on one of the tiny Baltic countries, there’s little that NATO could do to stop it in the short term. But the threat of a potential U.S.-backed military response acts as a genuine deterrent to Russian notions of reimposing Soviet-era boundaries, experts and former diplomats said.
“In an alliance of democracies, you’ll always have to confront the burden-sharing question,” said Stanley Sloan, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
But with some NATO allies peeking over their border fences at snap exercises featuring thousands of Russian soldiers with brand-new equipment and heavy armor, Washington’s word counts a great deal, Sloan said. “Deterrence means a lot of things,” he said, “like indications of intent and support.”
Photo credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images