Trump-Biden Spat on NATO Highlights Divide on America’s Role in the World

White House — With former President Donald Trump doubling down on remarks that, if elected, he would not defend NATO members who don’t meet defense spending targets, and a foreign military funding package stalled in Congress, a stark divide is emerging on how two American presidents and their constituents view America’s role in the world.

Biden, who has made strengthening coalitions against adversaries the central tenet of his foreign policy, advocates for more international cooperation overall. Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee, is again pushing for his brand of “America First” isolationism that created anxiety among allies and partners during his time in office.

At issue is how Washington would meet the collective defense principle under Article 5 of NATO’s charter, which requires members to assist one another in the event of an outside attack. In a campaign speech last week, Trump boasted that as president, he once warned a NATO leader he would allow Russia to do whatever it wants to member countries of the alliance that are “delinquent” in allocating 2% of their gross domestic product to military spending.

The remarks have sparked anxiety among NATO allies as they support Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion two years ago but are being dismissed by Trump allies as mere campaign rhetoric.

However, in another campaign event Wednesday evening, Trump retold the story, saying, “Look, if they’re not going to pay, we’re not going to protect. OK?”

Trump has long complained that Washington is saddled with an unfair share of the 31-member alliance’s burden. In the months leading up to his election in 2016, he repeatedly questioned NATO’s purpose and efficacy, calling it “obsolete.”

Pushing for House passage of a $95 billion security aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific allies, Biden on Tuesday denounced Trump’s NATO-bashing comments as “shameful,” “dangerous and shocking” and “un-American.”

He slammed his predecessor’s “transactional” approach, pointing out that Article 5 has been invoked only once, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks against America, allowing allies to assist in the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.

Trump is “bowing down to a Russian dictator,” Biden said, vowing his administration would not walk away from its “sacred commitment” to the alliance.

In defense of Trump’s comments, Jason Miller, senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said that Trump “got our allies to increase their NATO spending by demanding they pay up, but Joe Biden went back to letting them take advantage of the American taxpayer.”

“When you don’t pay your defense spending you can’t be surprised that you get more war,” Miller said in a statement to VOA.

The White House argues it is Biden who deserves credit for increasing the number of NATO allies that meet their 2% defense threshold, from nine members to 18, since he became president.

“You’ve got NATO countries stepping up now with implementable plans for the defense and deterrence of the east and the south in a way that you never did before,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during a White House briefing Wednesday. “And you have unity among the NATO alliance in a way that has really been pretty unprecedented in modern memory.”

Opposition from Trump loyalists

The $95 billion funding package for allies passed the Senate on Tuesday but now faces steep opposition from Trump loyalists in the House of Representatives, including Speaker Mike Johnson.

More than half of Republican senators — including some of the party’s most committed foreign policy hawks — voted against the measure.

One of them, Senator Lindsay Graham, said that Trump is “dead set against” the bill. He signaled support for Trump’s idea that the U.S. should make such funding packages “a loan, not a gift.”

Trump allies have also floated ideas to force NATO members to pay. Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general and former chief of staff of the White House National Security Council under Trump, suggested a “tiered alliance” in which members that failed to meet the 2% target on defense would no longer be covered by Article 5 protections.

Such signals from Trump and his allies have gone beyond isolationism in shaking the confidence of European allies, said Kristine Berzina, managing director of Geostrategy North at the German Marshall Fund research group. They contradict “the essence of deterrence,” and invite hostilities.

“Trump is trying to win points through bravado. And American bravado on the international stage has been incredibly powerful for America’s friends,” she told VOA. “This is kind of the inverse of bravado. This is a, ‘Well, maybe won’t show up at all.’”

American voters

Until Trump, supporting allies and partners has never been a controversial element of foreign policy, which in itself is not traditionally a key issue in U.S. elections. However, with Trump’s NATO-bashing, the broader issue of America’s role in the world is set to become another divide among voters.

Just 50% of Republicans believe the U.S. benefits from transatlantic alliances, compared to 80% of Democrats and 63% of independents, according to an October poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

The issue is “highly politicized” by Trump to “gin up his base,” said Clifford Young, president of public affairs at Ipsos, a polling research firm. For Trump, “it’s about breaking the rules and shaking things up,” Young told VOA. “His base is very much in favor of that in a general sense, not necessarily specifically.”

Among Republicans, 40% of those who identify as Trump supporters support military aid for Ukraine, while 59% of non-Trump Republicans favor it, close to the 63% level among the overall public.

Arguments over NATO and support for Ukraine are set to heat up as the administration hosts an alliance summit in July in Washington, less than a week before the Republican National Convention, where Trump is likely to be officially nominated as the party’s presidential candidate.

The NATO summit is meant to celebrate the group’s 75th birthday and showcase that the “alliance is bigger, stronger and more united than it has ever been,” Sullivan said at a press conference in NATO’s headquarters in Brussels earlier this month.

That message is on track to clash with Trump’s “America First.”

“Much more than any other campaign season, we’re going to see foreign policy and security play an outsized role,” GMF’s Berzina said. “Trump is breaking Republican orthodoxy entirely, not only with his isolationism, but with his pandering to autocrats.”

The question is, Berzina added, how many centrist Republicans and Democrats would vote to say that Trump’s message is not in line with what America is.

leave a reply: