Catholic leaders react to Trump’s startling NATO comments

4 mins read
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he holds a campaign rally at Coastal Carolina University ahead of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary in Conway, South Carolina, Feb. 10, 2024. (OSV News photo/Sam Wolfe, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — As debate over the United States’ commitment to NATO becomes a talking point of the 2024 campaign, a Catholic peace scholar cautioned against creating confusion for U.S. allies.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor at Notre Dame Law School who specializes in international law and conflict resolution, told OSV News, “Like NATO or not, the U.S. is committed to its members under the terms of a solemn treaty.”

“If states do not believe the U.S. will keep its commitments, our country faces a whole host of challenges,” O’Connell said.

In several recent campaign stops, former President Donald Trump, who appears poised to secure his party’s nomination for president in 2024, suggested he would not defend NATO members that don’t meet defense spending targets from attacks, and that he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member country that doesn’t meet those spending guidelines if he were reelected.

“NATO was busted until I came along,” Trump said. “I said, ‘Everybody’s gonna pay.’ They said, ‘Well, if we don’t pay, are you still going to protect us?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ They couldn’t believe the answer.”

Trump suggested that “one of the presidents of a big country” asked him whether the U.S. would still defend the NATO ally if they were invaded by Russia even if they “don’t pay.”

“No, I would not protect you,” Trump said he told that president. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.”

Biden speaks out

The leader of NATO criticized Trump’s comments. In a statement to The Associated Press, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”

President Joe Biden wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, “The promise of NATO — that an attack on one is an attack on all — keeps American families safe.”

“It’s that simple,” Biden said. “Any individual who calls into question the durability of that vow is a danger to our security.”

An ad for the Biden campaign also blasted Trump.

“No president has ever said anything like it,” the ad states. “It’s shameful. It’s weak. It’s dangerous. It’s un-American.”

Under the terms of NATO, which was implemented in 1949, the group considers an attack against one or several of its members as an attack against all, and pledges collective defense in the face of such a scenario. There are currently 31 NATO members.

NATO members agreed in 2014 to commit at least 2% of their gross domestic product to defense following Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but Ukraine has sought membership as it fends off Russia’s invasion.

The U.S. will stand with NATO

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in February that NATO has projected 18 allies will spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense in 2024, and those not spending at least 2% should have plans “to swiftly meet that target.”

“The United States will continue to stand with our NATO allies and to defend the sovereignty and the territory of every alliance member — every inch of it,” Austin said. “Our commitment to Article Five remains ironclad.” The principle of collective defense is enshrined in Article 5.

Canada, which is geographically situated between the U.S. and Russia, is currently below NATO’s 2% defense spending target; its government has not specified a timeline for reaching it.

O’Connell said the original point of NATO “was to defend Western Europe from the Soviet Union.”

“It is based on the (United Nations) Charter Article 51’s provision for self-defense,” she said. “A state that is the victim of an armed attack by another state has a right to respond in self-defense to the extent necessary and proportionate. Article 51 also permits a victim state to request other states to join it in collective self-defense.”

NATO’s treaty, she said, “cites Article 51 and in its famous Article 5, says that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all.”

“The members must still agree to come to a member state’s assistance and no state can be compelled to send troops,” she said. “But the alliance is prepared to do so.”

NATO ‘essential’ to world security

O’Connell said that every U.S. president “except perhaps President Trump has considered NATO essential to U.S. security and standing in the world.”

“During the Cold War, they saw the organization as essential to preventing a Soviet takeover of Europe,” O’Connell said. “After the Cold War, the alliance used force in Kosovo in 1999, in Afghanistan after 9/11, in Libya in 2011. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO is back to where it started, defending states from Russia.”

O’Connell said that if “states do not believe the U.S. will keep its commitments, our country faces a whole host of challenges.”

Asked about an isolationist trend seemingly gaining momentum within the Republican Party, O’Connell said that if isolationism “means walking away from legally binding commitments, such as the North Atlantic Treaty, the U.S. undermines its standing in the world and all that comes with that standing.”

“The U.S. built its standing and the advantages it has gained from that by being a nation committed to international law,” she said. “That commitment has been in question since the end of the Cold War.”

O’Connell said President Trump’s position “indicates he will continue to disregard the law and do so in a way that confuses some of the U.S.’s closest allies.”

“Defending Ukraine and other victims of unlawful war — in NATO or not — is essential to world order and peace,” she added. “To even hint that populations would be left undefended to be subjected to the inhumanity Ukrainians and Russian opponents of Putin are experiencing is in conflict with international law and the moral principles that underlie it.”

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.