It may look like Trump scared NATO back into readiness — but it's probably all down to Putin

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  • Trump shocked NATO by seemingly encouraging an attack on members that don't meet spending targets.

  • Some leaders have rushed to make defense deals and increase their military contributions.

  • But it's not really to do with Trump, and his threats have no real "silver lining," experts said.

When Trump said at a rally earlier this month that he'd encourage Russia to "do whatever the hell they want" to NATO countries that don't meet defense spending expectations, world leaders reacted in shock.

The White House called the remarks "unhinged," while NATO's secretary-general said they made both US and European soldiers less safe.

But some have suggested that — like it or not — the prospect of having to defend themselves without the US by their side could at least prompt some NATO members to ratchet up much-needed spending on their militaries.

Estonia's Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas, said the remarks could "maybe wake up some of the allies who haven't done that much."

While Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently told fellow leaders to stop "whining" about Trump and start investing in their militaries.

But the idea of a "silver lining" of boosted NATO defense emerging from Trump's pointed remarks is "naive or delusional," according to Edward Hunter Christie, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and a former NATO official.

NATO states' increased defense spending in recent years has little to do with Trump, experts told BI.

Trump was already pushing at an open door

Trump has long boasted that he alone fixed NATO.

"I got them to pay up," he told his supporters at the same rally. "NATO was busted until I came along."

"You never saw more money pour in,” he added.

NATO spending has indeed accelerated since Trump entered politics. As of last week, 18 of NATO's 31 member states are expected to meet the recommended threshold of spending 2% of GDP on defense. That's compared to just three nations back in 2014.

But the biggest driver of this flurry is almost certainly not Trump, experts told BI.

"Pretty much all of the increases, I would say, since 2014 are a response to Russia," said Hunter Christie.

William Alberque, a former NATO arms control expert and now director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that if Russia hadn't annexed Crimea in 2014, and if it hadn't launched its full-scale invasion in 2022, "we would be on a completely different glide path in terms of NATO spending, no matter how angry Trump got."

Alberque said some officials may be quietly pleased at the external pressure from Trump, allowing them to scapegoat him for their already-planned spending decisions to their citizens. "It's useful to blame the US," he said.

But those politics can work in reverse — leaders that had planned to spend more may end up being so annoyed at the pressure that they reverse course, he said.

"Putting allies under pressure — not a bad instinct," he said. "The way he's doing it? An awful instinct."

It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it

Trump's demands of NATO allies also weren't a departure from existing US policy.

"This percentage thing has been going on forever and ever and ever," Alberque said. "And there's always just the general impression that the Europeans aren't quite doing enough."

For Patrick Bury, a former NATO analyst and now a lecturer in international security at the UK's University of Bath, the demand that European countries pay more for collective defense isn't unreasonable.

There's an "anger" in the US over it, he said: "These are allies that sent generations of their young men to bail out Europe, twice in the last hundred years."

The problem, Alberque said, is how Trump relates to the alliance — purely transactionally, and with poor communication.

In 2018, Trump abruptly pulled the US from a key nuclear arms-control treaty. This move was in line with the policy of President Barack Obama, Alberque said. The problem is how he went about it.

"He just announced it one day," he said. "He didn't preview it with any of the nations. He didn't get them ready. He just dropped it one day and it made everyone scramble around with it."

This meant it "just rankled" — even with the nations who agreed with the move.

By framing the NATO spending demand so transactionally, Trump did "lasting damage" to US relations with South Korea and Japan — which President Joe Biden was left to rebuild, Alberque added.

Threatening partners is "bananas"

Trump's transactional take on NATO collective defense is ultimately reasonable, Bury said — but encouraging other countries to attack NATO allies is "bananas."

"I'd say there's some reassessments going on" among the US' allies, he added.

If US allies are spending more money on NATO defense, it's not because Trump is goading them, but because they're concerned about increasing global instability. And one of the drivers of that instability is Trump.

"Anything he says that threatens US future alliances is going to make countries want to spend more on defense because they're no longer able to rely on the United States," according to Alberque.

Claiming that spending increased because Trump demanded it would be wrong, he said. "It's like, no — it's because you're a jackass."

"It's fundamentally about the fact that he's trying to make the US less trustworthy as an ally."

It's a "warning shot," he added. Not only that NATO countries should spend more, but also that, should Trump once again lead the US, he could easily make agreements with Russia that are detrimental to European security.

Alberque pointed to current GOP efforts — under Trump's influence — to halt further funding to Ukraine, a move that could only embolden President Vladimir Putin in the face of NATO.

The prospect of the US potentially aiding Europe's biggest threat — Russia — is what has other world leaders most on edge.

Hunter Christie said: "I think that we have a highly dangerous situation and that Trump would be a grave danger to the future of the transatlantic alliance.

"And that is actually an extremely negative development for European security."

Read the original article on Business Insider