As NATO meets, leaders look to 'Trump-proof' the military alliance

Former U.S. president Donald Trump pictured during a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at Winfield House, London on Dec. 3, 2019.

NICHOLAS KAMM | AFP | Getty Images

As NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary with a summit in Washington this week, the alliance is facing some familiar foes and challenges: Russia’s war on Ukraine is ongoing, Moscow’s alliances with China, North Korea and Iran are strong, and the military coalition’s defense spending remains a perennial bugbear among members.

Another familiar, yet unpredictable, challenge lies ahead: the possibility of another U.S. administration led by former President and Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Trump had a tense and combative relationship with the military alliance during his last term in office over 2017-2021, lambasting other member states for not honoring their 2014 commitment to spend 2% of their national GDP on defense spending.

While campaigning to return to office in the forthcoming presidential election, Trump rattled NATO members again in February, when he said he would not provide military protection to any member state that had not met its financial obligations to the bloc and would even “encourage” adversaries “to do whatever they want” to that nation.

President Donald Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leave the stage after family photo during the annual NATO heads of government summit at the Grove Hotel in Watford, Britain December 4, 2019.

Peter Nicholls | Reuters

The comments provoked outrage in the White House, which at the time described them as “appalling and unhinged.” Outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said “any suggestion that we are not there to protect and defend all Allies will undermine the security of all of us and put at risk our soldiers, our personnel who are on the front lines to protect the whole Alliance.”

“One for all, all for one applies for all Allies and is the heart of NATO,” Stoltenberg told reporters in February, referencing NATO’s Article 5 clause that member states must come to each other’s mutual defense.

As the NATO summit takes place in Washington this week, member states are presenting a united front on the 75th anniversary of the defense pact, with leaders keen to emphasize their ongoing support for non-member Ukraine by unveiling new military aid and a pledge to strengthen the country’s beleaguered air defenses.

‘Trump-proofing’ NATO

Leaders are also seen as wanting to “Trump-proof” military aid for Ukraine ahead of his possible re-election, given that the Republican front-runner has been ambivalent on the subject of ongoing aid for Ukraine. While incumbent President Joe Biden’s support for Ukraine is solid — with the president reiterating his commitment to Kyiv’s fight as he addressed delegates Tuesday — his re-election is looking shaky, amid concerns over his fitness for office.

Analysts at Eurasia Group said they expected NATO leaders to take steps to ringfence the coordination of the coalition’s aid spending for Ukraine, in a bid to protect it from a possible future Trump administration.

“In a key step to “Trump-proof” Ukraine aid, NATO will take over substantial parts of the various coordinating efforts for Ukraine aid from the U.S.” the analysts said Tuesday, flagging that such a step would make it harder, but not impossible, for a possible future Trump administration to thwart support efforts.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speak during a meeting in New York on September 25, 2019.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Describing uncertainties around the U.S. presidential election and the prospect of Donald Trump’s return to the White House as a “shadow” cast over the NATO summit, the analysts said that “concerns about President Joe Biden’s staying power will fuel early stage and informal discussions among several allies on two key issues: whether the West has a winning strategy for Ukraine and the question of nuclear deterrence in Europe in the face of a potentially diminished U.S. presence.”

NATO leaders’ diplomacy

Traveling to Washington for his first NATO summit, Britain’s new Prime Minister Keir Starmer indicated that he hoped financial aid for Ukraine would be “locked in” at the meeting.

Asked if allies could “Trump proof” any deal on aid, Starmer told reporters the summit was an opportunity to cement the alliance’s financial commitment to Ukraine.

“It’s the largest group of NATO countries together with the additions that we’ve got, and the package that we are seeking to advance, it goes beyond the support that’s been put in before and will be locked in, I hope, at this NATO conference,” he said, The Independent reported.

Starmer has made a “cast-iron commitment” to raise U.K. defense spending to 2.5% of GDP, but has refused to give a timetable for the increase. The U.K. spent 2.3% in 2023, NATO figures show.

For his part, Donald Trump has previously said he could end the Russia-Ukraine war “in one day,” without adding how he would do so. Treading a careful diplomatic line, NATO leaders told CNBC that such comments reflected Trump’s tendency toward “bold” rhetoric and not necessarily the reality of what will be enacted.

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“We’ll react to actions, not words,” Poland’s Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski told CNBC Tuesday, when asked whether he was worried that the transatlantic alliance would not be a foreign policy focus, if Trump were re-elected.

We are not going to interfere in our great ally’s internal politics … we want to have the best possible relations with whoever is in charge here,” he told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick on the sidelines of the summit in Washington.

Hanno Pevkur, Estonia’s defense minister, emphasized that NATO allies did not interfere in each other’s domestic politics and democratic processes.

“The American people are the ones who are electing the U.S. president. So when, when the choice of American people is Donald Trump, then it’s Donald Trump. Then all the countries in the world, including Estonia, including the NATO allies, have to talk with this administration who will be put in place.”

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“I strongly believe that also U.S. President Donald Trump wants to be the leader of the free world, and he wants to show that that U.S. will not lose the war in Ukraine, because more is [at] stake. It’s not only the decision of the United States,” he added.

Trump’s pressure on NATO members to raise their defense spending has been popular among his supporters ,and even his critics agree that there are a number of NATO allies — including larger members such as Germany, Canada and France — who have dragged their feet over the expenditure. NATO estimates on defense spending per member state in 2023 suggest only 11 of its now-32 members met or exceeded the 2% of GDP threshold, with Poland leading this group.

Balázs Orbán, political director for Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, told CNBC that Trump’s pressure on European countries had been “very positive,” as it had galvanized NATO allies into spending more on their own defense.

“We Europeans have to take ourselves seriously,” he told CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick, describing Trump as taking a “pro-European” position on defense. If we rely only on American friends and we are not putting enough, energy, money and preparation into our own safety then what are we talking about?

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He added that Hungary began its military modernization program before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, as a matter of “vital” national interest.

“We can tell our American friends, ‘it’s wonderful that you are here. If you are in trouble, we are there to defend you,” Orbán said. “If we are in trouble, you can come and please help us’ but first and foremost, we are responsible for our own safety, and we have to do our job and what [former] President Trump is saying, and how he is putting pressure on European countries, I think it’s very positive.”

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