BERLIN — Long before Donald Trump threatened over the weekend that he was willing to let Russia “do whatever the hell they want” against NATO allies that do not contribute sufficiently to collective defense, European leaders were quietly discussing how they might prepare for a world in which America removes itself as the centerpiece of the 75-year-old alliance.
Even allowing for the usual bombast of one of his campaign rallies, where he made his declaration Saturday, Trump may now force Europe’s debate into a far more public phase.
So far the discussion in the European media has focused on whether the former president, if returned to office, would pull the United States out of NATO.
But the larger implication of his statement is that he might invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to pick off a NATO nation, as a warning and a lesson to the 30 or so others about heeding Trump’s demands.
His statement stunned many in Europe, especially after three years in which President Biden, attempting to restore the confidence in the alliance lost during Trump’s four years in office, has repeatedly said that the United States would “defend every inch of NATO territory.” And while a spokesperson for the White House, Andrew Bates, denounced Trump’s comments as “unhinged,” by Sunday morning they had already resonated with those who have argued that Europe cannot depend on the United States to deter Russia.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, which comprises Europe’s heads of government and defines their common policies, wrote that “reckless statements” like Trump’s “serve only Putin’s interest.” He wrote that they make more urgent Europe’s nascent efforts to “develop its strategic autonomy and invest in its defense.”
All of this doubt is bound to dominate a meeting of NATO defense ministers Thursday in Brussels and then the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of national security leaders, on Friday. And while Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will doubtless use the moment to celebrate the NATO solidarity that has been critical to keeping Ukraine an independent nation two years after Russia’s invasion, any statements they make will almost certainly be met with doubts about what the alliance will look like in a year.
In fact, that reevaluation has been underway for months, some European diplomats and defense officials say, though they have alluded to it only obliquely in public, if at all.
Germany’s defense minister, Boris Pistorius, has begun talking about how Germany must prepare for the possibility of decades of confrontation with Russia. The departing secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said last week that the alliance had to prepare for a “decadeslong confrontation” with Russia.
In a statement Sunday, Stoltenberg said, “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.” He added, echoing statements made by NATO members in 2016, “I expect that regardless of who wins the presidential election, the US will remain a strong and committed NATO ally.”
Denmark’s defense minister, Troels Lund Poulsen, has said that within three to five years, Russia may “test” NATO’s solidarity by attacking one of its weaker members, attempting to fracture the alliance by demonstrating that others would not come to its defense. “That was not NATO’s assessment in 2023,” he told Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, last week, calling it “new information.”
At its core, the argument underway in Europe goes to the question of whether members of the alliance can be assured that the US nuclear umbrella — the ultimate deterrent against Russian invasion — will continue to cover the 31 members of the NATO alliance.
Britain and France have their own small nuclear arsenals. If, over the next year, NATO’s European members came to doubt that the United States would remain committed to Article V of the NATO treaty, which declares that an attack on one constitutes an attack on all, it would almost inevitably revive the debate about who else in Europe needed their own nuclear weapons — starting with Germany.
When Olaf Scholz, the current German chancellor, prepared last week to meet Biden in Washington, he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “Russian victory in Ukraine would not only be the end of Ukraine as a free, democratic and independent state, it would also dramatically change the face of Europe.” It would “serve as a blueprint for other authoritarian leaders around the globe.”
In Washington, Scholz stressed that Germany had now become the second-largest provider of military aid to Ukraine and was part of the European decision in recent weeks to provide $54 billion over the next four years for the country’s reconstruction.
This year, Germany will finally reach the goal of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense — the goal set for all NATO nations — years later than first promised. The commitments Europe has now made to Ukraine exceed Washington’s current promises, at a moment when it is unclear whether Republicans in Congress will continue to block additional support.
Trump mentioned none of this in his threatening remarks Saturday; Europe’s stepping up to the challenge, if belatedly, does not fit his campaign narrative.
But what will resonate in capitals around Europe will be the wording of what he described as an encounter with an unnamed president “of a big country.”
In Trump’s telling, the leader asked him, “Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” And Trump recalled saying: “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay.”
The story, which was seen as implausible in many European capitals, was, 75 years into the alliance, a casting of NATO as more of a protection racket than an alliance.
Whether Trump wins in November or not, the fact that such a vision of NATO has taken hold with a significant number of Americans represents a shift that is bound to affect the view of the trans-Atlantic alliance in Europe for years to come.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.