A closer look at Trump's years of criticizing NATO, particularly on defense spending

Detractors argue his rhetoric sends a troubling signal about the U.S. alliance.

February 20, 2024, 8:46 PM

Former President Donald Trump has long been critical of NATO, the post-World War II alliance between the U.S. and many European countries, because the United States pays out the biggest portion in defense spending among member countries while the majority of the others contribute a much smaller share.

Trump's view can be controversial -- most recently when he said during a campaign rally this month that he would "encourage" Russia "to do whatever the hell they want" to NATO allies who don't spend enough defense funds.

NATO's secretary-general said that comment "undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S.," and Trump's primary rival Nikki Haley called it "bone-chilling."

"We have to start waking up to what this means," Haley said on ABC's "This Week."

Trump has dismissed backlash from his critics and doubled down on his claim that he would not protect allies who don't meet their share of defense spending while not going as far as suggesting he'd urge Russia's aggression toward them.

"President Trump got our allies to increase their NATO spending by demanding they pay up," a campaign spokesperson previously said, adding, "When you don't pay your defense spending you can't be surprised that you get more war."

Trump's allies and some of his critics alike say his concerns about NATO defense spending are "legitimate" and an issue that has been raised by his predecessors (and other politicians) over the years.

But detractors also say Trump's rhetoric sends a troubling signal about an alliance that many have credited with deterring another continent-wide war.

Trump's views on NATO date back at least to his first presidential campaign, in 2016. Among other comments then, he said at a rally that NATO was "obsolete" and suggested he was learning more about how the alliance worked -- "but I learn quickly."

"NATO is costing us a fortune and, yes, we're protecting Europe with NATO but we're spending a lot of money," he told The Washington Post in early 2016, in what would become a familiar remark on the trail.

At the center of Trump's concerns is a 2014 agreement among NATO countries to work to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense -- a target "guideline" set following Russia's invasion and illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, but only followed by a little more than a third of the member countries as of 2023.

Shortly after being sworn in as president, Trump said in a U.K. newspaper interview that "I took such heat when I said NATO was obsolete. It's obsolete because it wasn't taking care of terror. ... And then they started saying Trump is right."

That's because other member countries weren't contributing enough to defense, "which I think is very unfair to the United States," he argued at the time.

"With that being said, NATO is very important to me. There's five countries that are paying what they're supposed to. Five. It's not much," he said. (That number is now 11.)

Later in 2017, his first year in office, he appeared alongside other NATO country leaders and publicly rebuked ally nations for not paying their "fair share."

President Donald Trump, center, gestures as he walks off the podium after a group photo at a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, Dec. 4, 2019.
Peter Nicholls/AP

In 2019, Trump further pressed Germany, in particular, to ramp up its military spending, saying then if they didn't, "I'll have to do something with respect to trade" -- after which Germany has been gradually increasing its defense spending.

Last week, the German government announced it had met its 2% NATO alliance target for the first time in three decades.

NATO defense spending has also been a recurring topic on the campaign trail this past year, as Trump pushes his "America First" agenda, attacking President Joe Biden for his focus on international coalitions.

"I want a future that protects American labor, not foreign labor, a future that puts American dreams over foreign profits," Trump said at a rally in Michigan in September. "A future that raises American wages, that strengthens American industry, that builds national pride and that defends this country's dignity, not squanders it all to build up foreign countries that hate us."

Biden has sharply challenged Trump's position.

"When America gives its word, it means something. When we make a commitment, we keep it. And NATO's a sacred commitment. Donald Trump looks at this as if it's a burden," he said earlier this month.

He also blasted Trump for appearing to defer to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a hypothetical conflict.

"No other president in our history has ever bowed down to a Russian dictator. Let me say this as clearly as I can: I never will. For God's sake, it's dumb, it's shameful, it's dangerous," he said.

Over the years, Trump has made several false or exaggerated claims about NATO countries' defense spending, such as arguing that previous U.S. presidents like Barack Obama "didn't ask [other NATO members] for anything" and taking sole credit for NATO countries' increase in defense spending during his presidency.

But Trump isn't the first U.S. president to raise issues with NATO: Former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush both pushed for NATO allies to spend more of their budgets on defense spending.

Trump's recent comments took it a step further by claiming there would be retaliatory action from the U.S. if those spending levels weren't met.

PHOTO: File photo dated May 25, 2017 of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, former US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at a Nato summit in Brussels, Feb. 6, 2019.
File photo dated May 25, 2017 of (front row left to right) NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, former US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at a Nato summit in Brussels, Feb. 6, 2019.
Stefan Rousseau/AP, FILE

Now, as he continues to face backlash from both sides of the aisle for his comments, Trump advisers and allies are once again cautioning not to take Trump's words literally, pointing to his record while he was president.

"Anyone who thinks that President Trump meant literally that Putin was going to be welcome to step on any ally doesn't understand President Trump very well," Ed McMullen, a former Trump-appointed ambassador to Switzerland, told ABC News.

"I think his leadership speaks for itself, as he had confronted Putin time and again, and clearly said that if he encroaches on Ukraine, he will regret it, and if he encroaches or enters into any hostilities on the Eastern Bloc, he would regret it," McMullen said. "And for four years, we had a very peaceful Putin,"

Anthony Gardner, a former Obama-appointed U.S, ambassador to the European Union, called Trump's concerns about NATO allies' defense spending "legitimate," stressing it's an issue that was raised by his predecessors and something Trump shouldn't "take credit for."

But he said Trump's comment that he'd "encourage" Russian aggression on NATO allies is alarming.

"Collective defense guarantee -- that's at the core of NATO -- should be one of the things one doesn't joke about," Gardner said. "Perceptions matter and the intended audience, which is certainly Russia, number one, will consider that that guarantee is maybe not as strong as we've been arguing."

Gardner also refuted Trump and his allies' claims that NATO allies' defense spending has been dropping again under the Biden administration, saying it's actually been going up, mainly due to the Russia-Ukraine war.

The latest spending report published by NATO shows numerous countries have indeed increased their defense spending percentage over the last three years, many Eastern European countries like Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Hungary as well as Spain, Greece and Finland.

However, defense spending did drop over the last few years in some other countries like the United Kingdom, Italy and Norway, the NATO report shows.

In this July 16, 2018, file photo, former President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, FILE

Gardner explained that fragmented national interests among European countries and the lack of a perception of a national security threat among many countries make it difficult for the NATO alliance to collectively ramp up defense spending.

But he stressed the most paramount issue that needs to be discussed further is how NATO allies' defense budget is spent -- saying many of the nations' spending is inefficient, with some countries reporting a vast majority of their military funds go toward things that are not "battlefield relevant," such as pensions and salaries.

McMullen said under Trump's presidency, meetings with NATO allies were contentious because the former president was challenging them to step up and spend more, but he also called that a critical part of Trump's process for strengthening the alliance.

"Lest anyone believe that President Trump is not firmly committed to the strength and durability of NATO and the alliance and a free West, they only need to look at history," McMullen said.

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