top of page

Trump’s Anti-NATO Rhetoric: Escalation, Reactions and Implications

Elizabeth Lawler

Source: Kevin Lamarque for Reuters

In February 2024, Former President Donald Trump sent a shockwave through the international community when he boasted that he would “encourage” Russia to attack NATO states. The comments, given during a South Carolina rally for Trump’s presidential campaign, indicated his disdain for the economic aspect of the NATO alliance. Trump asserted that, if Russia were to attack a state which had not met NATO’s economic contribution targets, that state would not be able to rely on US protection. Rather, the former President “would encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want.” 

His message to the US’ European allies is clear: pay up, or we will not protect you. 

Trump has a history of making bold claims on which he does not follow through, including various threats to withdraw from NATO altogether. However, regardless of their credibility, inflammatory comments such as those made in February have the potential to significantly damage the US’ alliances and reputation, particularly in the event of a second Trump presidency. 

A pattern of dismissal 

Anyone familiar with Trump’s rhetoric around NATO will likely be unsurprised by his recent comments. While these comments may be the most incendiary thus far, they are consistent with opinions he has been expressing since before his entry into politics. As far back as the 1980s, Trump has deplored the US’ disproportionate payments to NATO, and has described the organisation as “obsolete.” Throughout his presidency, he made threats to leave the organisation and focused almost exclusively on the disparity between US and European economic contributions. Yet, the February 2024 comments in particular marked a significant escalation in Trump’s anti-NATO rhetoric. Beyond a denial of the US’ security guarantees, which had been expressed before, this declaration was an overt encouragement of Russian aggression. 

On March 19, in contrast to his previous statements, Trump expressed a conditional willingness to remain in NATO. He detailed that he would maintain the long-standing partnership, so long as states pay their “fair share.” It is likely that he is referring to NATO states’ defence contribution target of 2% of GDP, and in doing so demonstrating a “misunderstanding of how NATO functions.” This target is voluntary, there is no deadline for it, and it is not a requirement for membership of NATO. Therefore, Trump’s threats to withdraw the US’ security guarantees are primarily based on his own misconception.

Trump’s comments on this issue are demonstrative of his disregard for the non-economic benefits of treaties and alliances and a willingness to leverage the existential threat posed by Russian invasion to reap further economic benefits from US alliances. 

Political criticism and voter indifference

The comments swiftly became a talking point in both domestic and international political discussion, drawing criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. The White House was quick to condemn Trump, calling his encouragement of Russia “appalling and unhinged” and highlighting its potential impact on “American national security, global stability, and [its] economy at home” in a statement released soon after the South Carolina rally. While he received support from some Republicans including Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, others were heavily critical. Former Republican nominee and key rival Nikki Haley described the comments as “bone-chilling,” while Senator Rand Paul said they were a “stupid thing to say.”

Naturally, the US’ European allies were heavily critical of the comments and their implications. Reactions largely focused on reaffirming the mutual strategic benefits of the NATO alliance. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg highlighted that the comments sent a message that “[undermined] all of our security, including that of the US, and [put] American and European soldiers at increased risk.” Similarly, in a tweet published on the day of the South Carolina rally, Germany’s Foreign Office highlighted that NATO’s mission “keeps more than 950 million people safe.”

While the comments have drawn significant criticism, US voters have seemingly remained on-side. In a quantitative sense, Trump’s comments do not appear to have negatively impacted his Presidential campaign in any meaningful way. Following the February rally, Trump maintained his substantial lead on his fellow Republican nominees. His decisive victories in the Super Tuesday primaries, essentially solidifying his position as the 2024 Republican Presidential candidate, are further proof that his “reckless” comments have done little to dissuade voters from supporting him. 

Trump’s America again: What could it mean for US alliances?

Since Donald Trump’s rhetorical escalation made little to no impact on the US voter-base, it is essential to consider what his attitudes could spell for the US should he become President in November. Trump’s comments and the broader rhetoric of which they are a part could cause serious rifts in the US’ alliances, European or otherwise. 

These comments, regardless of credibility, may lead European states to question whether they can rely on a US led by Donald Trump. While the concern will primarily be felt by states who have not met their economic targets, other states may also have something to fear. As economies fluctuate, a state’s capacity to contribute the recommended 2% may change. Given this, Trump’s comments may cause states to worry that economic vulnerability may also induce  foreign attack or invasion, without the assurance of protection or assistance from traditional allies. 

Furthermore, this rhetoric sets the precedent that should a state act against Trump’s wishes, they may have crucial US support withdrawn. This fear would not be limited to NATO states. It could ultimately cause other alliances to become fraught with uncertainty and insecurity, creating a political climate where Trump’s disapproval might lead to geopolitical vulnerability. 

Pushing the rhetorical envelope

If Trump’s indictment over his role in the January 6 riots has taught us anything, it’s that rhetoric matters. Both domestically and internationally, rhetoric alone can have a dramatic impact. It can be received as a dangerous call to action, as we saw on January 6 2021, or it can lead to dwindling trust and reputation in a nation, damaging alliances in the process. 

For many, Trump’s comments on NATO were a step too far. For Republican supporters and voters this seemingly wasn’t the case—but should we be surprised? In an election in which there are discussions taking place regarding the ability to hold office from prison, is there such thing as ‘too far’?


Elizabeth Lawler is a graduate of the ANU, holding a Bachelor of International Security Studies and a Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Affairs. She has a keen interest in peace studies and nuclear politics, with a particular focus on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. She is currently studying a Master of Arts (Writing and Literature) at Deakin.



bottom of page