Trump’s push for NATO countries to pony up on defense now benefits effort to aid Ukraine

NATO’s ability to deliver weapons and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine has received widespread praise in recent weeks, but the credit may belong to a man once recognized as the alliance’s biggest critic: former President Donald Trump.

National security experts say Mr. Trump forced NATO to modernize and recommit itself to the mutual defense of the West during his four years in the White House. They say those efforts improved the individual capabilities of NATO members and paved the way for the organization to maneuver seamlessly to help Ukraine stave off collapse.

“By getting them to cough up more money, there is no question, the alliance was strengthened militarily,” said John Herbst, a senior director at the Atlantic Council and former ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush. “The result is that NATO was much more ready to jump to the defense of Ukraine and its neighbors after Russia invaded.”

Because of the increased spending on military training and personnel, NATO members have been able to speedily mobilize and deploy weapons and humanitarian assistance to war-torn Ukraine. In many cases, the military equipment dispensed, including thousands of anti-tank weapons as well as “Stinger” surface-to-air missiles, were only recently purchased.

At the same time, the increased spending by NATO countries, especially those neighboring Ukraine, has deterred Russian President Vladimir Putin from expanding the war, analysts say. 

“There’s no doubt that Trump molded the alliance into a stronger force by the end of his presidency than it was at the end of the Obama years,” said Fred Fleitz, vice chair of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute and a former Trump national security aide. “I think that has made NATO more of a deterrent factor.”

Democrats disagree with the assessment. They say Mr. Trump’s demands that NATO members pay their fair share for collective security only served to destabilize the alliance.

“It was Trump’s attacks on NATO that encouraged Putin to believe NATO was fragile,” said Alexander Vindman, a former Army lieutenant colonel who testified at Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial.

NATO was founded in 1949 as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in western Europe. It was premised on the notion of collective security, meaning that if one member-state was attacked, all others would come to its defense.

The alliance’s power has always relied on the fact that its leading member is the U.S. — the world’s richest nation with an extensive nuclear arsenal to boot. That reality served as a deterrent against Russian aggression in western Europe throughout the Cold War.

While NATO members understood their security was premised on U.S. strength, they were still required to invest in defense. In 1990, the 14 European members of NATO had a combined military budget of roughly $314 billion.

All of that changed after the Soviet Union fell and NATO members began cutting defense spending as security threats became less easy to define. The situation was only exacerbated by the global recession of the late 2000s, which saw countries further slash military budgets to make up for expanded social welfare programs or European Union-imposed austerity.

Complicating matters is that NATO kept growing, while military budgets shrank. Among others, the alliance added Hungary in 1999, Bulgaria in 2004, Albania in 2009 and Montenegro in 2017.

In 2015, the 26 members of NATO from Europe had a combined military budget of only $227 billion. Between 1990 and 2015, defense spending by NATO’s European members declined by more than 28%.

Mr. Trump’s decision to enter the political arena marked a significant change. Running on an “America First” platform, Mr. Trump assailed NATO as “obsolete” and economically “unfair” for the U.S.

“I want to keep NATO, but I want them to pay. I don’t want to be taken advantage of,” Mr. Trump said at a campaign event in July 2016. “We’re protecting countries that most of the people in this room have never even heard of … give me a break.”

Mr. Trump stuck to the criticism even after repeated attacks from Democrats and Republicans alike. While lambasted as irresponsible and small-minded, the broadsides proved effective in pushing European countries to spend more on defense.

In 2014, only three of NATO’s 30 members were spending at least 2% of their GDP on defense. By Oct. 2020, 10 were doing so, with the other 20 pledged to reach the goal by 2024.

Democrats have downplayed the significance of the increase, arguing that NATO countries had already agreed to boost defense spending before Mr. Trump won office.

National security experts contend that Mr. Trump deserves credit for ensuring western allies followed through with their pledge. They note that the NATO agreement to boost military spending was self-policed and had no mechanisms for enforcement.

“He was more successful than any American president on this issue and he did it by challenging NATO members to test his resolve,” said Mr. Herbst. “NATO’s European members were forced to pony up or risk the likelihood that Trump and the U.S. would not come to their defense if attacked.”

Others also note that many now leading the charge in disseminating aid to Ukraine, including Germany, were once among the NATO members least willing to spend on defense.

“Trump asked really uncomfortable questions of the Germans,” said Mr. Fleitz, who served as chief of staff to the National Security Council under Mr. Trump. “Like ‘why are you making yourself so dependent on us defending you?’ Someone has to ask the question and it got results.” 

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