Europe needs to be ready to defend itself

Donald Trump at Nato's London conference
Donald Trump at Nato's London conference
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Donald Trump has a habit of saying something that contains a kernel of truth but wrecking its impact with excessive rhetoric. The latest example has sent ripples of concern around Europe and brought into question the former – and maybe next – American president’s commitment to Nato.

In his latest campaign foray, Mr Trump focused on the question of America’s contribution to Europe’s defence. He repeated a view expressed during his time in the White House that the Europeans were not paying their way and relying too heavily on US protection.

But he went further by suggesting he told one Nato leader that he would encourage Russia to attack a country that refused to pay up. The aggressors “could do whatever the hell they want”, he said.

How much of this is windy election talk and how much would translate into the policy of a second Trump presidency is impossible to say. But the European Nato countries need to assume the worst and act accordingly.

America’s growing frustration with Europe is not confined to Mr Trump. Barack Obama made a similar appeal for more spending when he was president, if not quite in the same language. Pressure was applied by Nato for all member states to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on their own defence and yet most still do not.

The US Congress will vote soon on a substantial foreign aid package which includes billions of dollars earmarked for the defence of Ukraine. This is being stalled by political wrangling on Capitol Hill, with Republicans unwilling to commit further large sums to a war that many consider unwinnable.

Mr Trump, virtually assured the Republican nomination for this November’s presidential election, is taking this reluctance much further by implying he does not subscribe any longer to the doctrine of mutual defence under Article 5 of the Nato treaty. Were this to be his policy in the White House, the implications would be enormous.

The US has been trying to disengage from its role as “world policeman” for some time. Mr Trump is more interested in China and the Pacific, a foreign policy pivot that began under president Obama and reflects the changing balance of world power.

Mr Trump’s latest outburst may have caught the headlines but is hardly surprising since he has made no attempt to hide his disdain for multilateral bodies or the so-called liberal international order. Europe needs to wake up to the new reality.

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