“NATO was busted until I came along,” former President Donald Trump recently boasted to a throng of cheering, whistling, clapping supporters. “They said, ‘Well, if we don’t pay, are you still going to protect us?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ … One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, ‘Sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, would you protect us,’ No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.” 

Our allies are still trying to digest Trump’s staggeringly reckless, dangerous, foolish, shortsighted, unprecedented comments about the NATO alliance. It’s tempting to include “thoughtless” in that list of adjectives. However, the truth of the matter—the terrible and terrifying truth—is that Trump has thought about this.

Trump’s comments about NATO and his green light to Vladimir Putin were indeed reckless, dangerous, and foolish, but they were not new, as I detailed several years ago in the pages of Providence.

Even before he was elected, Trump declared in early 2016 that he would come to the defense of NATO members under attack—an ironclad requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty—only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.”

Later that same year, he called NATO “obsolete…because of the fact they don’t focus on terrorism.” 

He deleted a sentence from his 2017 NATO Summit speech reaffirming America’s commitment to Article V—the North Atlantic Treaty’s all-for-one collective defense clause.

It gets worse. Asked during the 2018 NATO summit, “Would you leave us if we don’t pay our bills?” Trump responded, “I would consider it.”

Worst of all, according to a 2019 New York Times report, “senior administration officials” confirmed that “several times over the course of 2018…Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

Trump’s anti-NATO stance flows from his belief that alliance members “owe” the U.S. for being in the alliance. After meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, for instance, Trump announced: “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO…the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany.” 

This position is wrong and wrongheaded. First, it’s—ahem—interesting that someone with a reputation and long record of not paying his own creditors would be so incensed by the notion that NATO members “owe” the United States. 

Second and more importantly, while there are responsibilities and obligations of NATO membership, it’s not a dues-paying club. Nor is it a mob-style protection racket. Nor is it a halfway house for free-riders. To be sure, some NATO members could contribute more to the common defense. However, too many Americans forget or simply don’t know that NATO allies

helped the U.S. defend South Korea at the beginning of the Cold War and liberate Kuwait at the end, helped the U.S. end a war and keep the peace in the Balkans, helped the U.S. avenge 9/11, and assisted in the roll back the Islamic State. Today, NATO allies are at the forefront of efforts to arm Ukraine, backstop Israel, defend international shipping against Houthi piracy, and build a bulwark against China—all while pouring resources into deterring Putin.

Too many Americans forget or simply don’t know that NATO is a force-multiplier for U.S. power, a bridge to global hotspots, a backstop against great-power war in Europe, and a readymade structure where like-minded nations with shared values and high levels of military interoperability build coalitions to defend their freedom and interests. 
A former president should know these things. 

In response to Trump’s most recent broadside against the most effective military alliance in history, NATO Secretary General Jes Stoltenberg—in uncharacteristic bluntness—countered: “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk. I expect that regardless of who wins the presidential election the U.S. will remain a strong and committed NATO ally.”

Sadly, he’s only half-right

The unavoidable consequence of Trump’s reckless words about NATO is that if he returns to the Oval Office, the U.S. will not be committed to NATO, but only to those NATO members that “pay their share.” That means NATO will be unable to carry out its core mission of deterrence. And that would, in effect, mean the end of NATO.

NATO is a defensive alliance designed not to wage war, but to deter war. As Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, explained, “The paramount, the permanent, the all-absorbing business of NATO is to avoid war.” For almost 75 years, NATO has succeeded at this by convincing its adversaries that the costs of attacking any NATO member would far outweigh the benefits of taking such a risk and launching such an attack. 

NATO’s chief adversary—and one of America’s chief adversaries—is Russia. Putin’s Russia, it pays to recall, is hacking and attacking the U.S. power grid; using military force to attack, stalk and challenge U.S. vessels, U.S. satellites, U.S. seaspace and U.S. airspace; propping up hostile regimes in this hemisphere and the Middle East; spreading its nuclear arsenal into Belarus; threatening preemptive use of nuclear weapons to somehow deescalate a conflict; openly threatening Poland and the Baltics; occupying parts of Georgia and Moldova; annexing parts of Ukraine; laying siege to the whole of Ukraine in a brutal war of unprovoked aggression; and trying to rebuild the Russian Empire.

This is what Putin and his henchmen have done—even before Trump invited them “to do whatever the hell they want.” 

If there’s any doubt about NATO’s all-for-one defense guarantee—and an American president encouraging Moscow “to do whatever the hell they want” spawns enormous doubt both inside and outside the alliance—Putin will be tempted to do in the Baltics or Poland what he has done in Ukraine. That will force NATO to fire back or blink. And that leads to terrible outcomes: The former leads to a third world war and the end of much more than NATO. The latter leads to the rapid unraveling of NATO—and with it, America’s entire system of alliances.

The best way—the only way—to prevent such dire scenarios is through deterrent military strength, clarity of intent, and certainty of cause and effect. Trump’s words and actions have undermined all of these and further emboldened Putin. 

If Americans think it’s difficult and expensive to deter Moscow, Beijing and their partners, to protect U.S. interests, and to promote U.S. prosperity today—with our transatlantic and transpacific alliances intact—wait until those alliances collapse. There’s a reason Putin has attacked Georgia and Ukraine but not Poland and Estonia. There’s a reason Xi is circling Taiwan with warships and warplanes but not Japan and the Philippines. There’s a reason the Kim dynasty has talked about unifying the Korean Peninsula by force for 70 years but never tried to do so. That reason is the U.S. alliance system.

The cornerstone of that alliance system—and America’s security and prosperity—is NATO. When the security of Europe is at risk, so is the security of the United States—whether or not the America Firsters of the 1930s or 2020s grasp the economic, political, demographic and historical ties that bind both sides of the Atlantic and form them into a community of shared values and shared interests. As Stoltenberg has noted, “Two world wars and the Cold War have taught us that there is no real security in Europe without a strong transatlantic bond.”

We will not know the biblical notion of peace—of shalom, peace with harmony and justice—until Christ returns to make all things new. In the interim, the best alternative in this broken world full of broken men is striving to maintain some semblance of great-power peace through deterrent strength. NATO has helped the United States do exactly that since 1949. 

“For the first time in history, there exists in peace an integrated international force whose object is to maintain peace through strength,” President Harry Truman observed when NATO was new. “We devoutly pray that our present course of action will succeed and maintain peace without war.” 

As Trump takes a sledgehammer to NATO’s foundations, as Putin takes aim at NATO’s members, as NATO’s neighbors bleed and burn, that prayer seems especially apt today.