Donald Trump’s latest provocation—reciting an old conversation where he said he’d let Russia do “whatever the hell they want” to Nato members in arrears—had officials in Europe going back to that time and remembering it somewhat differently.
Several European officials who interacted with Trump at multiple summits of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) said they couldn’t recall the version of events the former president and current Republican frontrunner shared with a rally of supporters in South Carolina, nor that he ever went as far as saying he’d invite a Russian attack.
They have memories of Trump repeatedly hectoring members who were falling short of Nato’s spending target at multiple meetings and goading them to pay up fees in return for being protected. In fact, during the 2018 summit in Brussels, Trump called a hastily arranged news conference to address reports that he had privately threatened to pull out of the post-World War II alliance if countries didn’t quickly increase defense spending.
Not only do officials on the continent remember Trump’s antagonism differently, this time around they come prepared to handle a lot of what he will throw out. There is an awareness that the former president will mix facts with fiction, that he is prone to exaggeration and that the tight race is descending into an ugly contest with politics playing to a domestic audience.
They realize that this won’t be the first—or indeed the last—incident where Trump’s own recounting of an interaction with a foreign leader is resurrected and retold to US voters. The European Union boosted defense spending in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and it has already set in motion plans in the event Trump gets another term as president, and the messaging in Europe tends to be more restrained.
President Joe Biden is fighting for re-election and his White House naturally went on the attack, calling the comments “appalling.” Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance remains “ready and able to defend all allies.”
Facing blowback from his Saturday comments, Trump’s campaign contended that his time in office included relative stability in Europe and it reiterated his longtime claims that he goaded Nato member countries to increase spending.
As Bloomberg reported last week, EU has quietly started preparing an impact assessment of the consequences of the November US election, paying particular attention to the scenario in which Trump wins. If anything, Trump’s comments have re-energized talk of European solidarity and of finding ways to boost funding for its defense sector even further.
“If Europe does not take more effective care of its own security, if we will make Europe’s security depending solely on the good will and readiness to defend the US, sooner or later it may end in disaster,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on Sunday. “We also need to wake up Europe.”
Though Trump repeatedly criticized members for not paying their dues, Nato doesn’t have membership or protection fees. Its members pledged to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense and abide by the principle that an attack on one is an attack on all.
In his 2020 memoir, “The Room Where it Happened,” former National Security Advisor John Bolton recounts how Trump planned to threaten to withdraw from Nato at the 2018 summit. The then-president told his adviser ahead of the gathering that he planned to tell allies that by the following January 1 all nations must commit to 2 percent, “or we will walk out, and not defend those who have not.”
Bolton sought to rein in Trump, telling him to “go up to the line, but don’t cross it.” He should slam delinquent members but not threaten withdrawal, Bolton told him, according to his account. In the end, Trump told allies he was “with Nato 100 percent,” but that allies had to pay the 2 percent by January 1 or “the US was just going to do its own thing,” Bolton wrote.
While Trump’s misunderstanding of how Nato works hasn’t changed in the past six years, Europe has taken major strides since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Nato allies, and Europe in particular, significantly scaled back defense spending in the years after the end of the Cold War, only starting to reverse the trend in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. But Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 has accelerated the shift, most notably in Germany, which chronically underspent.
“Defense spending has been rising to unprecedented levels since Russia’s war in Ukraine,” said Oana Lungescu, a distinguished fellow at RUSI and former Nato spokesperson, adding that she expects that around two thirds of Nato allies will meet the guideline this year. “But it’s clear that Nato countries simply have to invest much more and much faster in their own defense, regardless of who sits in the White House.”
European allies have shipped tens of billions of dollars worth of advanced weapons to Ukraine, even after initially resisting when Russia’s tanks rolled toward Kyiv.
The EU as a bloc, of which most members are also part of Nato, has also taken unprecedented steps into active military support for Ukraine, both in weapons aid and military training. The EU is working on plans to increase its artillery production and ramp up its defense industry, including with a new strategy due to be unveiled in the coming weeks.
Trump’s latest remarks, coupled with his lead in the polls ahead of November’s election and the ongoing deadlock in Congress where a $60 billion aid package that Ukraine desperately needs remains deadlocked, is likely to strengthen those voices that have been calling on the EU to do even more to boost its capabilities and autonomy.
The idea of a more strategically autonomous Europe was once a mostly intellectual concept advocated by France and a few others. Nowadays, even diplomats in some of the US’s staunchest allies in central and eastern Europe argue that the EU needs the ability and capabilities to act— within Nato—and stand on its own two feet, according to multiple officials in those countries.
That day is still many years away. A target to provide Ukraine with one million rounds of artillery by March has been delayed until the end of the year and member states are still at odds over how to raise the tens of billions its defense industry needs to expand and how to spend the money.
Beyond the immediate reactions, Trump’s latest remarks may well sharpen minds even further when EU leaders gather in Brussels next month at a summit to discuss a strategy for their defense industry.
“They reemphasise the need for the EU to urgently further develop its strategic autonomy and invest in its defense. And to keep our Alliance strong,” the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, said on the platform X. With assistance from Natalia Ojewska/Bloomberg