Former US President Donald Trump sparked a firestorm of criticism from the White House and senior Western officials for suggesting he would not defend NATO allies who did not spend enough on defense and would even encourage Russia to attack them.
Here are the answers to some key questions about NATO, the comments from Trump – who is running for another term in the White House in November and leads President Joe Biden in some polls – and their implications.
What is NATO?
Founded in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union’s rising Cold War tensions, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a political and military alliance of countries in North America and Europe.
The principle of collective defense is enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty: the idea that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all of them.
NATO makes decisions by consensus, but the political and military strength of the United States means it is by far the most powerful country in the alliance, and its nuclear arsenal is considered the ultimate guarantee of security.
What countries are in NATO?
NATO currently has 31 members, most of them European nations, plus the United States and Canada.
The newest member is Finland, which joined last April in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Sweden has applied to join along with Finland, but is waiting for Hungary to ratify its application as a last major step before becoming a member.
During the Cold War, NATO’s primary goal was to protect Western Europe from the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, NATO expanded to include countries from the former communist bloc of Central and Eastern Europe.
NATO members range from large countries such as Great Britain, France, Germany and Turkey to small nations such as Iceland and Montenegro.
What did Trump say about NATO?
As U.S. president from 2017 to 2021, Trump often lashed out at NATO and members like Germany, accusing them of not paying enough for their own defense and relying on Washington to protect them. He openly questioned the principle of collective defense.
Other US administrations have also accused the Europeans of not spending enough on defense, but in less strident terms.
Trump took his criticism to a new level at a campaign rally Saturday in Conway, South Carolina, when he recounted what he said was a conversation with the “president of a great country.”
“Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we are attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” Trump quoted the words of the anonymous leader.
“I said, ‘Did you not pay? Are you in default?’ He said, ‘Yes, let’s say that happened.’ No, it wouldn’t protect them. In fact, it would encourage them (Russia) to do whatever they wanted. They have to pay,” Trump said.
How is NATO financed?
Trump has often accused other NATO members of not paying their dues, giving the impression that the alliance is like a club with membership dues.
But NATO operates differently. It has common funds, to which all members contribute. But most of its strength comes from members’ own national defense spending: to maintain forces and buy weapons that can also be used by NATO.
However, NATO members have committed to spending at least 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year on defense, and most of them missed that target last year.
How many NATO members meet the defense spending target?
According to NATO estimates from July last year, 11 members were expected to meet the 2% target by 2023. Those members were Poland, the United States, Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, Great Britain and Slovakia.
Germany, the heavyweight of the European economy, was estimated at 1.57%. But German officials have said they hope to reach the 2% target this year, thanks in part to a special billion-euro fund set up in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The countries that spent the least as a percentage of national GDP were Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg, according to NATO figures.
NATO is expected to release updated figures in the coming days that will show more allies meeting the 2% target, according to people familiar with the data.
What is NATO Article 5?
In Article 5 of the founding treaty, NATO members declared that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America “shall be considered an attack against all of them.”
They agreed that they would “assist the Party or Parties thus attacked by immediately taking, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such measures as they deem necessary, including the use of armed force.”
However, Article 5 stops short of committing to an automatic military response to assist an ally under attack. That means the strength of Article 5 depends on clear statements from political leaders that it will be backed by action.
This is one of the reasons why Trump’s comments caused such a furor, particularly because they came at a time of heightened alarm in NATO about Russia’s intentions following its invasion of Ukraine.
By suggesting that he would not take military action to defend an ally, Trump undermined the assumptions that give Article 5 power.
“Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the United States, and puts American and European soldiers at greater risk,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Sunday.