Trump may now force Europe’s debate into a far more public phase. His statement stunned many in Europe, especially after three years in which President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that the US would “defend every inch of Nato territory.” And while the White House denounced Trump’s comments, they have resonated with those who have argued that Europe cannot depend on the US to deter Russia.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, which comprises Europe’s heads of govt and defines their common policies, wrote that “reckless statements” like Trump’s “serve only Putin’s interest.” He wrote that they make more urgent Europe’s nascent efforts to “develop its strategic autonomy and invest in its defence.” And in Berlin, Norbert Rottgen, a member of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, wrote on X, “Everyone should watch this video of #Trump to understand that Europe may soon have no choice but to defend itself.”
All of this doubt is bound to dominate a meeting of Nato defence ministers on Thursday in Brussels and then the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of national security leaders, Friday. In fact, that re-evaluation has been under way for months. Germany’s defence minister, Boris Pistorius, has begun talking about how Germany must prepare for the possibility of decades of confrontation with Russia. Denmark defence minister Troels Lund Poulsen has said that within 3 to 5 years, Russia may “test” Nato’s solidarity by attacking one of its weaker members, attempting to fracture the alliance by demonstrating that others would not come to its defence.
At its core, the argument underway in Europe goes to the question of whether members of the alliance can be assured that the US nuclear umbrella – the ultimate deterrent against Russian invasion – will continue to cover the 31 Nato members. Britain and France have their own small nuclear arsenals. If, over the next year, Nato’s European members came to doubt that the US would remain committed to Article V of the Nato treaty, which declares that an attack on one constitutes an attack on all, it would almost inevitably revive the debate about who else in Europe needed their own nuclear weapons – starting with Germany. This year, Germany will finally reach the goal of spending 2% of its GDP on defence – the goal set for all Nato nations – years later than first promised.