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‘Whatever they want’: Trump comment stuns

Donald Trump has alarmed the United States’ allies by declaring that he would “encourage” Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” with NATO countries who, in his view, spend too little on defence.

The latest, but perhaps starkest, illustration of Mr Trump’s dissatisfaction with the NATO alliance came during a political rally in South Carolina, which holds its presidential primary in a fortnight. He is running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

Mr Trump told a crowd of his supporters about a conversation he allegedly had, while president, with the leader of a major ally.

“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?’” Mr Trump said.

“I said, ‘You didn’t pay, you’re delinquent. Let’s say that happened. No, I would not protect you. In fact I would encourage them to do whatever they hell they want.’ You’ve got to pay. You’ve got to pay your bills.”

Article 5 of the NATO treaty requires all member countries to take collective action if one member is attacked. It has only ever been invoked once, after September 11, 2001, when the United States was struck by terrorists.

In 2006, the alliance added a guideline that member states should aim to spend at least 2 per cent of their GDP on defence by 2024.

While spending has risen significantly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and further still since Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, as of last year 19 member states still fell short of the target.

Among them were geopolitical heavyweights France (1.9 per cent of GDP), Germany (1.57 per cent), Italy (1.46 per cent), Canada (1.38 per cent) and Spain (1.26 per cent).

The United States, which has the world’s most formidable military, spends a whopping 3.49 per cent of its GDP on defence. Within NATO it’s second only to Poland, which has doubled its expenditure in recent years to 3.9 per cent in response to Russia’s aggression.

Mr Trump’s antipathy towards NATO is longstanding. In the first year of his presidency, back in 2017, he pointedly refused to confirm the United States’ commitment to Article 5, before a diplomatic backlash caused him to backtrack.

Two years later, he reportedly discussed the idea of withdrawing from NATO altogether with his staff.

A spokesman for the current White House, led by Mr Trump’s likely opponent in November, President Joe Biden, described his latest remarks as “appalling”.

“Encouraging invasions of our closest allies by murderous regimes is appalling and unhinged,” said spokesman Andrew Bates.

“It endangers American national security, global stability and our economy at home.”

Meanwhile experts have questioned Mr Trump’s understanding of the NATO alliance.

“NATO isn’t a pay to play set-up, as Trump seems to think,” Alina Polyakova, head of the Centre for European Policy Analysis, told The Washington Post.

“It’s an alliance that is first and foremost about US national security interests to prevent another world war originating in Europe.

“The US investment in NATO is worth every dollar. The only time that the Article 5 collective defence clause was initiated was in response to 9/11. Our allies came to our aid then, and it would be shameful and misguided not to do the same.”

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