The words of Donald Trump, who raised the possibility of no longer defending those Alliance countries that do not want to invest in their defense, provoked strong reactions, but for the Alliance diplomats who knew him in the White House, they have the impression of déjà -vu.
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The ex-president and candidate recounted a conversation he had with a head of state during a campaign event: “One of the presidents […] stood up and said, “Sir, if we don't pay and are attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” No, I won't protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever they want. You have to pay your bills.”
Such statements “undermine the security of all of us, including that of the United States,” responded NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a particularly clear statement.
The American billionaire's comments questioning Article 5, the basis of the North Atlantic Treaty, were “an attack on the soul of the alliance,” a diplomat in Brussels stressed under the cover of anonymity.
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Article 5 states that if a NATO country is the victim of an armed attack, each member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence to be an armed attack directed against all members and will take such measures as it deems necessary to prevent it to help attacked country.
However, many diplomats also recalled that this tone was not new and had resonated during Trump's time in office between 2017 and 2021, as well as during his previous campaigns.
“We are all very aware of the statements he can make,” one of them summarized. “These statements need to be placed in the context of the American election campaign,” another added.
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“We stay calm”
However, at NATO headquarters in Brussels we want to keep a cool head.
“We open our eyes, we remain calm, we carry on,” summed up the French ambassador to NATO, Muriel Domenach, on X this weekend.
Most officials, of course, point out that Trump's comments sowing doubts about the alliance's unity are a boon for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sought to stoke divisions since the invasion of Ukraine began two years ago.
But many of them recognize that beyond the real estate mogul's very provocative style, the argument that many European countries need to give in is relevant.
In fact, the majority of NATO's 31 member states have still not met the goal of spending 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) on military spending, a goal the alliance set in 2006. The goal at the time was to better share efforts between European countries and the United States.
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Donald Trump, like others before him, including his predecessor Barack Obama, remembered this often during his presidency.
According to NATO estimates, only eleven of them will have achieved this goal in 2023.
However, Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 contributed to Europeans investing more in their defense equipment. And the 2% limit has become a floor rather than a spending cap since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.
“In two military program laws, we have doubled the resources allocated to our defense,” assured French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné in an interview with several European newspapers this weekend. These laws apply for the period 2019-2030 and Paris hopes to reach the 2 percent target next year.
“Europe needs to do more, that is obvious in the current geopolitical situation,” says a NATO diplomat.