Long before Donald J. Trump threatened over the weekend that he was willing to let Russia “do whatever the hell it wants” against NATO allies that do not contribute enough to collective defense, European leaders have been 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 blowout of one of his campaign rallies, where he made his announcement on Saturday, Mr Trump can now force the Europe debate into a much more public phase.
So far the debate in the European media has focused on whether the former president, if returned to power, would pull the United States out of NATO.
But the biggest implication of his statement is that it may invite President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to choose a NATO nation, as a warning and a lesson to the 30 or so others about Mr. Trump’s demands.
His statement surprised many in Europe, especially after three years in which President Biden, trying to restore confidence in the alliance that was lost during Mr. Trump’s four years in office, has repeatedly said that the United States would “ they defend every centimeter of NATO territory. And while a White House spokesman, Andrew Bates, denounced Mr. Trump’s comments as “independent,” by Sunday morning they had already resonated with those who argued that Europe cannot depend on the United States to deter Russia.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, which is made up of Europe’s heads of government and sets their common policies, wrote that “reckless statements” like Mr Trump’s “only serve Putin’s interest”. He wrote that they add more urgency to Europe’s nascent efforts to “develop its strategic autonomy and invest in its defense.”
And in Berlin, Norbert Röttgen, a member of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, wrote on social media platform X, “Everyone should watch this #Trump video to understand that Europe may soon have no choice but to to defend herself.” He added, “Anything else would be capitulation and giving up on ourselves.”
All that doubt is sure to dominate the meeting of NATO defense ministers on 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 J. Blinken will no doubt use the moment to celebrate the NATO solidarity that has been critical to keeping Ukraine an independent nation two years after Russia invaded, any statements they make will doubts will almost certainly be faced about what the alliance will look like in a year’s time.
In fact, that reassessment has been underway for months, some European diplomats and defense officials say, though they mention it only obliquely in public, if at all.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has begun talking about how Germany should prepare for a potentially decades-long confrontation with Russia. Outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that the alliance needed to prepare for a “decades-long confrontation” with Russia.
In a statement on Sunday, Mr Stoltenberg said: “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all 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.”
Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen said that within three to five years, Russia could “test” NATO’s solidarity by attacking one of its weakest members, attempting to break up the alliance by showing that others will not they defend her. “This was not NATO’s estimate in 2023,” he told Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, last week, calling it “new information.”
At its core, the ongoing argument in Europe boils down to whether alliance members can be confident that the US nuclear umbrella – the ultimate deterrent against Russian invasion – will continue to cover its 31 alliance members. NATO.
Britain and France have their own small nuclear arsenals. If, over the next year, European NATO members had doubts that the United States would remain committed to Article V of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all, it would almost inevitably revive the debate. about who Else in Europe needed their own nuclear weapons — starting with Germany.
During the last Cold War, this debate was quite open, in ways that may seem shocking today. Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, said in 1957 that tactical nuclear weapons—the kind Russia threatened to use in the Ukraine—were nothing more than the further development of artillery. He added: “We cannot, of course, do without them.” In a 1962 meeting he added that the defense of Berlin “must be fought from the start with nuclear weapons.”
For six decades the United States has helped combat such sentiments by basing American nuclear weapons across Europe. They remain there to this day. But the value of that deterrent has been called into question as Mr. Trump — publicly and privately — pushed his aides to pull out of NATO in 2018.
At the time, Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and two successive national security advisers, HR McMaster and John R. Bolton, tried to prevent Mr. Trump from sabotaging the cornerstone. of the European defense strategy. Their concern was that American influence in Europe would be undermined and Russia would be emboldened.
This, of course, was all before the war in Ukraine. Now the questions that seemed theoretical to Europeans — starting with whether Mr. Putin was prepared to try to reclaim lands he believed were rightfully Russia’s, back to Peter the Great — seem alive, perhaps life-threatening.
As Olaf Scholz, the current German chancellor, prepared last week to meet Mr. Biden in Washington, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “a 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 world.
In Washington, Mr. Scholz stressed that Germany has now become the second largest provider of military aid to Ukraine and is part of a European decision in recent weeks to provide $54 billion over the next four years to rebuild the country.
This year, Germany will finally meet the goal of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense – the goal set for all NATO nations – years later than originally promised. Europe’s commitments to Ukraine now go beyond Washington’s current pledges, at a time when it is unclear whether Republicans in Congress will continue to block additional support.
Mr. Trump mentioned none of that in his threatening remarks on Saturday, of course. Europe’s progress on the challenge, albeit belatedly, does not match his campaign narrative.
But what will resonate in capitals across Europe will be the wording of what he described as a meeting with an unnamed president of “a great country”.
In Mr Trump’s speech, the leader asked him: “So, sir, if we don’t pay and we get attacked by Russia, are you going to protect us?” And Mr. Trump recalled saying, “No, I wouldn’t protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You must pay.”
The story, which was considered unlikely in many European capitals, was, in the 75 years of the alliance, a shedding of NATO as a protection racket more than an alliance.
And whether Mr. Trump wins in November or not, the fact that such a vision for NATO has caught on with significant numbers of Americans represents a shift that is sure to affect how the transatlantic alliance is viewed in Europe for years to come. .
Christopher F. Schuetze and Stephen Erlanger contributed reporting from Berlin and Matina Stevis-Grindnev from Brussels.