Opinion: Trump’s rants about NATO are making the U.S. weaker
On Sept. 12, 2001, 24 hours after the 9/11 attacks, representatives of the then-19-member NATO convened to invoke Article 5 of the organization’s charter, which holds that an “armed attack” on one member “shall be considered an attack against them all.” This was the first and only time Article 5 has been put into effect. For the following two decades, NATO forces fought alongside us in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
On Saturday, former President Trump ranted against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at a rally in Las Vegas.
“We’re paying for NATO, and we don’t get so much out of it,” he lied. “And you know, I hate to tell you this about NATO: If we ever needed their help — let’s say we were attacked — I don’t believe they’d be there. I don’t believe. I know the people. I know them. … I don’t believe they’d be there.”
Trump has long talked about NATO as if it’s some sort of obsolete club where everyone is supposed to pay dues into a common kitty, but the U.S. has been left picking up everyone’s tab. That’s not how it works. NATO’s standalone budget is about $3.5 billion, of which we pay 16%, roughly $560 million. A new aircraft carrier costs about 20 times that. All other “NATO spending” takes the form of domestic defense expenditures by individual member states. When he was president, Trump was right to pressure other countries to spend more, but now that they are spending more, he doesn’t care or credit the change.
Trump’s calumnies against NATO are offered to bolster his distortions about supporting Ukraine. In his telling, both are examples of how the United States gets ripped off by its alliances and foreign engagements. He claimed we’ve spent “$200 billion-plus” on Ukraine, while the Europeans “are in for $20 billion.”
This, too, is false. According to the Ukraine Support Tracker, the European Union has contributed more to Ukraine than the United States. We’ve committed not $200 billion-plus but about $75 billion, about half of that in military assistance. The EU total is roughly 77 billion euros, or $83 billion. In terms of share of gross domestic product, the U.S. ranks 30th for Ukraine support, just behind Ireland and Malta.
We look better if you count only military aid, for the simple reason that we have the hardware Ukraine needs; Malta, not so much. Indeed, as my American Enterprise Institute colleague Marc Thiessen notes, the important thing about our military aid — at least for domestic political purposes — is that it doesn’t take the form of giving Ukraine a blank check, as many Republicans claim. Nearly 90% of military aid dollars stay in America, disproportionately in Republican districts and states, because they’re used to purchase the weapons that go to Ukraine.
If you care about U.S. relative military superiority, supporting Ukraine has been a huge bargain — degrading Russia’s military, helping to update ours and bolstering the security of our biggest trading partner without putting American troops at risk.
While it’s always useful to point out Trump’s thumbless grasp of the facts, none of this is exactly new information for people who actually care about the facts. The problem is how little facts seem to matter these days.
Prior to Russia’s lawless invasion of Ukraine, the argument that NATO was obsolete had some superficial plausibility. But now that Russia has repeatedly signaled that it has aims beyond Ukraine, toward NATO members, those weak arguments have evaporated. Certainly, our allies believe the threat is very real.
And those aren’t the only threats on the world stage. Proxies for Iran killed three U.S. servicemen over the weekend in a drone attack in Jordan. Russia, China and Iran have grown quite chummy. Our ally Israel is in a bloody war with Hamas, an Iranian proxy that ignited the conflict on Oct. 7. In short, this is the dumbest possible time to be talking about how America shouldn’t honor its alliances and commitments.
And tough talk can signal weakness, too. Trump’s denigration of NATO might sound like political “toughness” to his fans. But what Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping hear is evidence of NATO’s weakness.
NATO, and our alliances generally, make America stronger. They allow us to project power globally at a fraction of the cost of doing so in other ways. For those who disagree, it’s worth considering why the case against NATO made by the former president has to rest on so many lies. If the facts were on Trump’s side, he’d offer some.