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Europe and America Appalled by Donald Trump's Remarks on NATO

Former U.S. President and Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump sparked controversy with his recent statement at a campaign event last week in South Carolina.
The 45th President of the United States discussed the possibility of not assisting NATO allies if they fail to spend two percent of their GDP on defense if elected again, even encouraging Russian President Vladimir Putin to attack these countries.

Trump's comments triggered outrage and concern among NATO member states. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was quick to assert that NATO remains ready to defend all its members, while noting that Trump's suggestion that the U.S. would not defend countries not meeting the two percent target "undermines our whole security."

The White House responded more harshly, with spokesperson Andrew Bates stating in a release: "Encouraging murderous regimes to attack our closest allies is shocking and reckless, endangering American national security, global stability, and our economy."

President Joe Biden also shared his thoughts on Trump's statements, adding that the Republican majority in the House defeated a bill on Wednesday that, among other things, would have provided financial support to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan worth 95 billion dollars.

Biden did not mince words regarding Trump's declaration or the Republican faction's vote, saying of the former president that "no other president in history has bowed to a Russian dictator," and continuing, "For God's sake! It is nonsense. Shameful. Dangerous. Un-American." Addressing the Republican faction, he posed the question:

"Do you stand with Ukraine or with Putin? America or Trump?"

However, not only were statements of concern and outrage made across the Atlantic, but plans also began to be drawn up in case Trump were elected in November's presidential election and implemented this proposal.

U.S. Cannot Exit NATO, But Could Still Cause Damage

Several Democratic senators in the U.S. spoke on Monday about the need for Congress to act and prepare to mitigate the potential damages Trump could cause to the military alliance if he returns to the White House.

Although the Senate passed a bill at the end of last year making it extremely difficult for the U.S. president to withdraw from NATO – the law stipulates that this would only be possible either with the support of two-thirds of the Senate or an act passed by Congress – , Democrats warn Trump could still hinder NATO’s operations significantly.

Trump could continue to undermine trust in NATO, as Stoltenberg hinted, or reduce the American contribution to NATO’s budget and withdraw U.S. troops stationed in NATO member states. He attempted both during his presidency; the former in 2019 and the latter in 2020, with only troop withdrawals realized.

Should Trump return to the White House, he could also minimize American participation by not appointing a U.S. ambassador to NATO or as commander-in-chief, deciding that U.S. troops would not participate in joint military exercises.

Most damaging would be if Trump were to declare he would not honor NATO's collective defense under Article 5. Legally, the treaty obliges him, but as pointed out by Axios, the treaty text allows for creative interpretation as it does not specify exact steps but mentions armed response as a potential retaliatory action.

As such, Democrats called for new legislation on Monday to further shield U.S. involvement in the alliance, while Republican senators viewed the concerns voiced by their counterparts and European allies as exaggerated.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored last year’s bill to prevent a NATO exit, commented that Trump as president neither undermined nor ruined NATO; he simply speaks differently from other politicians in negotiations. Texas Senator John Cornyn trivialized Trump's statements by saying:

"I take everything Trump says seriously, but not literally."

He added that he believes Trump is merely urging NATO allies to fulfill their financial obligations and that Trump would still defend allies as obligated by NATO’s Article 5.

In fairness, NATO's most recent report from 2022 with projections for 2023 indicates that only 11 of the 31 member states have met the defense spending requirements, even though spending has greatly increased over the years.

European Strategic Autonomy Revisited

Trump's remarks have been commented upon not only domestically but also in Europe. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, during a press conference with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Berlin, said that no one can "play or make deals" with Europe’s peace and labeled any relativizing of NATO's mutual defense commitments as "irresponsible and dangerous."

At the same briefing, Tusk highlighted the respect for the European Union in every capital of the world, should it become a military powerhouse as well as a beacon of "civilization, economy, and science." Earlier the same day, alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, he declared:

"One for all, and all for one in NATO."

During their joint press conference, Tusk and Macron also discussed Europe's importance in developing its defense capabilities and armaments, regardless of what Trump says.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola of Malta went further with her proposal to Politico, stating, "Europe needs to be ready to take over the leadership of the free world if Trump returns."

In case of Trump's return, Metsola argued that Europe must be robust, with the European Union bolstering defense industries among member states and taking a practical approach to the strategic autonomy proposed by Macron earlier.

Metsola advocated for the European Union to become a defense union, supplementing rather than competing with NATO, suggesting more budget allocation towards defense and strengthening joint procurement.

Additionally, reports indicate the European Commission is examining the possibility of establishing a new commissioner exclusively focusing on the industrial aspects of defense policy after the European Parliament elections.

Politico confirmed this with three sources, while a spokesperson mentioned that Ursula von der Leyen would look favorably upon such an appointment upon reelection revealing potential candidates like Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who has also been considered for NATO Secretary-General.

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