Long before Donald J. Trump threatened this weekend While he was prepared to let Russia “do whatever it wants” against NATO allies that do not contribute enough to collective defense, European leaders were quietly discussing how they could prepare to a world in which America would withdraw from the central role of the 75-year-old Alliance.
Even allowing for the usual grandiloquence of one of his campaign rallies, where he made his statement on Saturday, Mr. Trump could now force the European debate into a much more public phase.
The debate in European media so far has focused on whether the former president, if returned to power, would withdraw the United States from NATO.
But the broader implication of his statement is that he could invite Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to eliminate a NATO country, as a warning and a lesson to the 30 or so other countries about the need to take Mr. Trump’s demands into account.
His statement stunned many in Europe, especially after three years in which President Biden, trying to restore confidence in the alliance lost during Mr. Trump’s four years in office, repeatedly said that the UNITED STATES “defend every square inch of NATO territory.” And while a White House spokesman, Andrew Bates, denounced Mr. Trump’s remarks as “disturbed,” by Sunday morning they had already resonated with those who said Europe could not not count on the United States to deter Russia.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, which brings together European heads of government and defines their common policies, wrote that “reckless statements” like Mr. Trump’s “only serve Putin’s interests.” He wrote that they make Europe’s nascent efforts to “develop its strategic autonomy and invest in its defense” more urgent.
And in Berlin, Norbert Röttgen, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Parliament, wrote on the social network choice but to defend yourself. » He added: “Any other step would be capitulation and abandonment of ourselves. »
All these doubts are 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 take the opportunity to celebrate the NATO solidarity that has been essential to maintaining Ukraine as an independent nation two years after the Russian invasion, all their statements will almost certainly be met with success. doubts about what the alliance will look like in a year.
In fact, this reassessment has been underway for months, some European diplomats and defense officials say, although they have only hinted at it indirectly in public, if at all.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has started speaking how Germany must prepare for the possibility of decades of confrontation with Russia. Outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that the alliance must prepare for a “decades-long confrontation” with Russia.
In a statement released on Sunday, Stoltenberg said: “Any suggestion that allies will not defend themselves undermines our entire security, including that of the United States, and places American and European soldiers at increased risk. . ” He added, echoing statements made by NATO members in 2016: “I hope that whoever wins the presidential election, the United States will remain a strong and committed ally in the NATO. »
Danish Defense Minister Troels Lund Poulsen said that within three to five years, Russia could “test” NATO solidarity by attacking one of its weaker members, thereby attempting to break 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 newspaperlast week, calling it “new information.”
At heart, the ongoing debate in Europe is about whether alliance members can be assured that the U.S. nuclear umbrella – the ultimate deterrent against Russian invasion – will continue to cover all 31 members of the NATO alliance.
Britain and France have their own small nuclear arsenals. If, over the next year, NATO’s European members come to doubt that the United States remains committed to Article V of the NATO treaty, which declares that an attack on any one constitutes an attack on all, it would almost inevitably reignite the debate over which other countries in Europe needed their own nuclear weapons – starting with Germany.
During the last Cold War, this debate was very open, in a way that may seem shocking today. Konrad Adenauer, first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, declared in 1957 that tactical nuclear weapons – those that Russia threatened to use in Ukraine – were “nothing more than a further development of artillery”. He added: “Of course we cannot do without it. » At a meeting in 1962, he added that the defense of Berlin “must be fought from the start with nuclear weapons.”
For six decades, the United States helped assuage these feelings by founding the nuclear weapons across Europe. They still remain there today. But the value of that deterrence was called into question when Mr. Trump — publicly and privately — urged his aides to withdraw from 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, moved quickly to prevent Mr. Trump to sabotage the cornerstone of European defense strategy. Their concern was that American influence in Europe would be undermined and that Russia would become emboldened.
Of course, this all happened before the war in Ukraine. Today, questions that seemed theoretical to Europeans – starting with whether Mr. Putin was prepared to try to take back the lands he believed rightly belonged to Russia since Peter the Great – seem vivid, or even potentially fatal.
When Olaf Scholz, the current German chancellor, prepared to meet Mr. Biden in Washington last week, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “Russian victory in Ukraine would not only mean the end of Ukraine as a free, democratic and independent state, but it would also radically change the face of Europe.” He would “serve as a model for other authoritarian leaders around the world.”
In Washington, Mr Scholz stressed that Germany had now become the second largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine and was part of the European decision taken in recent weeks to provide $54 billion over the next four years for the reconstruction of the country.
This year, Germany will finally reach the goal of spending 2% of its gross domestic product on defense – the target set for all NATO countries – years later than promised. The commitments Europe has now made to Ukraine exceed Washington’s current pledges, at a time when it is unclear whether congressional Republicans will continue to block additional support.
Of course, Mr. Trump mentioned none of this in his threatening remarks on Saturday; The fact that Europe is taking up the challenge, even belatedly, does not correspond to its campaign speech.
But what will resonate in European capitals will be the wording of what he described as a meeting with an anonymous president “of a great country.”
In his speech, Mr. Trump asked him: “Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” And Mr. Trump remembers saying, “No, I wouldn’t protect you.” In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever they want. You have to pay.
The story, considered implausible in many European capitals, was, 75 years after the alliance began, a portrayal of NATO as more of a protection racket than an alliance.
And whether Mr. Trump wins in November or not, the fact that such a vision of NATO has taken hold among a significant number of Americans represents a shift that is sure to affect the vision of NATO. transatlantic alliance in Europe in the years to come. .
Christopher F. Schuetze And Steven Erlanger contributed to the reporting from Berlin, and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels.