Donald Trump, former US President and the presumptive Republican nominee for the November US election, said at a campaign event that he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries that are not spending enough on defence.

Trump’s comments about the US-led military alliance – brash even by his standards of long-term NATO-bashing – drew alarm from allies and fierce condemnation from the White House with US President Joe Biden condemning the comments as “dumb” and “shameful”.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned that “any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US”. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that “NATO cannot be an à la carte military alliance”, adding that it was either existing or not existing. Spanish Minister of Defence Margarita Robles said that the alliance “will not accept any act that could involve a violation of the minimum rights included in international law and in the UN Charter of Rights”.

Diplomats from multiple NATO countries insist that keeping the United States on board remains fundamental to deterring the threat from Russia. But they remain sanguine about how genuine Trump’s threats are, arguing the alliance emerged from his first term unscathed.

“Unprecedented rise” in defence spending, doubts over future US aid for Ukraine 

Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that 18 of the alliance’s 31 countries are set to hit their defence spending target this year. Spurred on by Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2022, last year saw an “unprecedented rise” of 11 percent in spending by European members and Canada, the NATO chief added. 

Overall, he said European allies and Canada will have added more than $600 billion to their defence spending since they set the two-percent goal of their GDP a decade ago. The United States still accounts for the vast bulk of combined defence spending by NATO members.

“We should leave no room for miscalculation or misunderstanding in Moscow about our readiness and our commitment, our resolve to protect allies,” Stoltenberg said. 

NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană stated in early February: ”We will continue to support Ukraine. This is not the time to become pessimistic about what will happen in this war, which will be two years old in a few days. We have the resources, we have the will to make Ukraine succeed. It is very important that we remain united and continue to support this country, because their fight is our fight, their security also protects our security.”

Moscow’s full-scale war on Ukraine has served as a wake-up call for European countries and saw NATO turn the two-percent figure into a minimum requirement rather than a goal. Key players such as Germany have ramped up their spending and are set to meet the target this year. Spain aims to reach two percent by 2029. Spanish Minister of Defence Robles said the government was making an “extremely important effort” in terms of defence investment, adding that the 2023 budget was “a very high increase” in comparison to the year before.

Celebrating its 20th NATO membership anniversary this year, Slovenia’s defence expenditure is estimated to reach 1.31 percent of its GDP. The country plans to raise defence spending to two percent by 2030. The modernisation of the Slovenian Armed Forces gained momentum in recent years but investment plans were impacted by the catastrophic floods last year. 

On Thursday, Stoltenberg said he was welcoming the uptake in defence investments by the European allies but also that this was not an alternative to NATO but a way to strengthen it. The NATO chief underlined that the strength was to have Europe and North America in NATO together.

While there is a focus on NATO’s own defence spending, the pressing issue of support for Ukraine was also on the table at the meeting on Wednesday.

The US Senate a day before approved long-delayed funding for Ukraine’s war effort, but the package looks set to be rejected by the Republican-led lower house. Doubts over the future of US aid come as Ukraine says its forces are being outgunned in the face of a slow-moving Russian advance along the front line.

Nine months before Joe Biden stands for reelection in November, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken takes part in the Munich Security Conference alongside Vice President Kamala Harris. He faces an uphill climb to quell doubts on US leadership. The conference which starts on Friday brings together the world’s elite defence policy makers each year and is seen as a barometer on transatlantic relations.

 “It’s very clear to me wherever I go, and when I speak to people, that people watching the US appear very nervous,” said Comfort Ero, head of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

“I think the US is still seen as an influential player – both positively and negatively – internationally. But I think increasingly there’s alarm, there’s concern, there is uneasiness, about the uncertainty, the unpredictability, just the polarisation, the division,” she said.

Calls for stronger European stance on security within NATO

On Monday, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said more needed to be done in terms of individual countries’ defence spending, but Europe would send a “clear message irrespective of who will lead the next American administration” that the EU is “strong enough to be able to defend each other”.

“The biggest asset of the West against Putin is our unity. The last thing we should do is to throw that away,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo reacted to Trump’s comments. However, De Croo acknowledged that Europe has the responsibility to take its security in its own hands. “In the years to come we have to build a stronger European pillar within NATO.” 

While Belgium is among those with the worst track record on defence spending in years, De Croo insists that this trend has been reversed. “Year after year, Belgium is spending more money on defence now,” the prime minister said. “But we also have to look at the way this spending is happening, so as to make sure that our own industry, in Belgium and in Europe, will be able to grow as well.” 

In late January, Bulgarian defence minister Todor Tagarev stressed that “the European Defence Industrial Strategy should outline effective ways to overcome the EU’s dependencies on raw materials, energy and critical technologies, as well as introduce measures and instruments to increase the production of defence products, promote innovation and competitiveness of the defence sector”. 

Emmanuel Macron (r), Präsident von Frankreich, empfängt Donald Tusk, Ministerpräsident von Polen, im Elysee-Palast. Polens Ministerpräsident Tusk reiste nach Paris und Berlin, um auf diplomatischer Ebene zu versuchen, wichtige Allianzen wiederherzustellen.
Emmanuel Macron (r), President of France, receives Donald Tusk, Prime Minister of Poland, at the Elysee Palace. Polish Prime Minister Tusk travelled to Paris and Berlin to try to re-establish important alliances at diplomatic level. Photo: Aurelien Morissard/AP/dpa

France-Germany-Poland: Revived Weimar triangle “new boost” for EU

Earlier this week, new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk visited German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris to coordinate foreign policy cooperation between the countries and ramp up security cooperation in Europe.

Scholz also said at the joint press conference that Germany and Poland were working together. Solidarity and joint action were indispensable. The German chancellor said: “Especially at a time when Russia’s imperialism is threatening our common security in Europe. That is why we stand up for each other in the EU and in NATO.”

Tusk emphasised that the EU was superior to Russia in economic and financial terms. “It is certainly not the lack of money that will decide the fate of this war, this confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.” However, Tusk added, greater determination is needed to use Europe’s wealth for security and defence.

Macron praised Tusk and his government as “trusted, pro-European partners” who are “clear on European security”. He also reiterated calls to strengthen the European defence industry.

“This is what will also make it possible to make Europe a security and defence power complementary to NATO, the European pillar of the Atlantic alliance,” he said. In January, the French president called on European countries to get ready to back Ukraine in case Washington decides to pull the plug on aid.

Separately, newly appointed French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné hosted German counterpart Annalena Baerbock and Radosław Sikorski of Poland just outside Paris. The meeting, held in the so-called Weimar Triangle format, included a discussion on deepening foreign policy and security cooperation.

The format is an alliance the three nations created in 1991 in order to work together on European issues. Scholz hailed the revived partnership of the trio as “very important to all of us”, calling for “new momentum” behind the Weimar Triangle to provide a “new boost” to the European Union. 

Europe needs another “life insurance” policy in addition to NATO, Séjourné said, following the comments by Trump. “Yes, we need a second life insurance, not in substitution to or against NATO but in addition” to the alliance, he said. Séjourné insisted that it was necessary to build on the European element of NATO and build up its own defence industry and “buy European within the framework of our defence industries and prepare in the event of conflict”.

“We need to take care of the security of Ukrainians, and that means taking care of our security, and yes, I think we need a union of defence and security, with joint purchases and pooling our forces,” Annalena Baerbock added.

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