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The consequences of Trump's NATO comments

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Saturday night, during a rally in South Carolina, former President Donald Trump told the crowd about a meeting that he said he had as president. In it, he claimed, he warned America's NATO allies about what would happen if their countries did not, in his view, contribute enough money to the alliance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And one of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, well, sir, if we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us? I said, you didn't pay. You're delinquent. He said, yes, let's say that happened. No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.

DETROW: As president, Trump often expressed skepticism about NATO and frequently said things that undermine the North Atlantic military alliance. But this weekend's language sounded a lot more like a threat, and comes at a moment when Trump has taken a more extreme turn on many of the policies he pushed for during his four years in office. What would a NATO-skeptical president mean in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine war, among other factors? We called up Kathleen McInnis, a NATO expert who currently works as a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to talk about it. Hey, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN MCINNIS: Hi. Thank you for having me.

DETROW: So what, if anything, struck you as different about these latest remarks?

MCINNIS: The context in which that they are taking place - when we look at what Russia's appetite is, if they win in Ukraine, likely the war will be taken to NATO territories. It's essentially saying that the American president, if he's elected, would be OK with a more aggressive, expansionist Russia on NATO territories.

DETROW: What, in this moment, do you think the real-world implications would be if Russia or other actors did not think the U.S. would live up to its NATO promises?

MCINNIS: It's hard to overstate how dangerous the world would be if we get to this place where the United States is abrogating its alliance commitments. Candidate Trump is talking a lot about how NATO's allies aren't paying their fair share. But it's not as if the United States doesn't get a lot of strategic benefits out of its participation in NATO. We wouldn't have the position of global leadership that we do if it wasn't for our NATO allies and our commitment to European security.

DETROW: I should just point out, this isn't, like, money that NATO countries pay the United States. This is a promise to spend a certain amount of money on defense that all NATO countries have, and it is a fact that a lot of them don't actually meet those benchmarks. And that's something that you've had Marco Rubio and other Trump allies say today, saying, look, he's just continuing to express frustration that Democratic and Republican presidents have had. They just haven't framed it that way. Is there a point there at the bottom of this?

MCINNIS: You know, the allies and the United States have been bickering about, you know, whether or not they're meeting their spending targets on defense spending since the inception of the alliance, basically. What is new is this notion that we would pull out of the alliance or that we would allow Russia to invade a NATO territory because of a failure to spend the requisite amount of money.

DETROW: Yeah.

MCINNIS: Interestingly enough, if you think about what NATO nations are spending on national security more broadly, not just military capabilities and defense, the picture's actually much better. My colleagues and I at CSIS have been doing a study what actually suggests that over 12 allies are spending more than 4% of their GDP on what we would consider national security spending, and another 10 are spending 3% of their GDP on what we'd call national security responsibility sharing. They are spending these monies in ways that help the alliance. It's just not calculated in that narrow 2%.

DETROW: That's Kathleen McInnis with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thank you so much.

MCINNIS: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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