President Donald Trump’s threats to break with NATO are doing real damage to the United States’ most crucial military alliance, former defense and diplomatic officials who worked in Democratic and Republican administrations warned Thursday — saying they may only embolden Russia.
Trump upended this week’s NATO summit in Brussels by threatening that the United States might “go our own way” if NATO allies don’t dramatically boost their military spending.
While European leaders will probably dismiss those words as mere bluster — especially as the U.S. beefs up its military presence — the former officials said Trump is fraying the common bond that undergirds the alliance President Harry Truman established at the dawn of the Cold War.
“Words still count,” said Doug Lute, a retired Army lieutenant general who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO and worked on the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “Especially when those words come from the leader of the United States, which will always be the leader of the alliance. When the president says things that are untrue, uninformed and appear designed to be disruptive, they have an impact.”
Lute, who is studying NATO’s future at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said the attack on alliance unity “erodes confidence in American leadership and strikes at the heart of NATO’s common interests, common values, common responsibilities. And it is especially unhelpful just days before he meets NATO’s biggest competitor, Vladimir Putin of Russia.”
Indeed, others believe Trump’s rhetoric strengthens the hand of Putin, whom Trump meets Monday in Helsinki. Russia’s foreign policy, including its cyberattacks on the democratic process in Western countries and 2014 invasion of Ukraine, is widely believed to be focused on dividing — and therefore weakening — the resolve of the Western alliance.
“It plays Russia’s game of trying to weaken NATO,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said of Trump’s remarks. “And that’s the last thing that the United States ought to be part of.”