Opinion | How Trump can make NATO great again

As NATO gathers for its 75th anniversary summit in Washington this week, President Biden is taking credit for the fact that European allies and Canada have increased defense spending by hundreds of billions of dollars and warning that, if elected, Donald Trump will “eviscerate NATO.”

In fact, Trump, not Biden, is responsible for most of that spending increase. In 2006, allies pledged to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, but when Trump took office a decade later, only three were meeting their commitment, and spending by non-U.S. members had dropped to an all-time low of 1.4 percent in 2015. The situation was so bad that in Germany, NATO’s wealthiest European member, 60 percent of the country’s Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jets, 82 percent of its Sea Lynx helicopters, 61 percent of its main battle tanks, and all of its submarines or transport planes were unusable.

As president, Trump put Germany and the rest of NATO on notice: The United States would no longer tolerate their failure to contribute adequately to our common defense. And by the time he left office, allies were spending $130 billion more on defense than they did in 2016 and had pledged to increase that figure to $400 billion by the end of 2024.

Well, 2024 has arrived, and NATO data shows that non-U.S. members are projected to spend $510 billion more than they did in 2016 (excluding Finland and Sweden, which were not members in 2016 and whose entire defense budgets now count toward European totals).

That means almost 80 percent of the new spending by those countries is due to commitments made during Trump’s presidency. The rest can be credited as much to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as to diplomacy from Biden. In other words, the defense investment success that NATO celebrates this week is primarily a Trump achievement.

In the wake of Biden’s disastrous debate performance last month and historically low public approval, it seems increasingly likely that Trump will reassume the presidency and thus leadership of the NATO alliance again come January. That would be good news for NATO — because any fair-minded assessment of the records of the two U.S. presidents shows clearly that it is Trump, not Biden, who is the better candidate to reshape the alliance to meet the threats of this century. Far from eviscerating the Atlantic alliance, Trump left it militarily stronger than it has been at any time since the Cold War. In a second term, he would have the opportunity not just to further strengthen NATO, but to fundamentally transform it.

How might Trump put his stamp on NATO if he wins in November? These six planks can form a Trump NATO agenda that builds on the accomplishments of his first term.


Raise the NATO spending floor from 2 to 3 percent of GDP.

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The world is on fire. Wars are raging on two continents. Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are forming interlocking strategic partnerships with which to threaten America and its democratic allies. As Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, the supreme allied commander in Europe, recently told Congress, these developments represent a threat “more cohesive and dangerous than any threat the United States has faced in decades.”

In the face of this threat, spending just 2 percent of GDP on defense is no longer sufficient. When he took office, Trump told allies they should double their defense spending to 4 percent of GDP. That might be a bridge too far for most allies. But Polish President Andrzej Duda recently proposed raising NATO’s defense spending floor to 3 percent of GDP. That is achievable. At the height of the Cold War, non-U.S. NATO members spent an average of 3.5 percent of GDP on defense. There is no reason they couldn’t do the same today.


Enshrine the new spending levels in the North Atlantic Treaty.

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It took almost two decades for most NATO allies to meet their 2 percent spending commitment. And even now — despite witnessing the first major land invasion in Europe since World War II — more than a quarter are still projected to fall short. That is unacceptable.

The only way to change this is to impose real consequences for shirking spending commitments. Trump should insist that all allies make a binding pledge to carry their weight. Just as he renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, he should demand that the North Atlantic Treaty be amended to include a 3 percent minimum defense spending requirement so that it carries the same weight as the principle of collective defense enshrined in Article 5.

Doing so would strengthen NATO’s deterrence, not weaken it. If all NATO nations meet the new higher defense investments, NATO will be the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world. And creating a new spending obligation would bolster public support for the alliance’s security guarantees. A new Ronald Reagan Institute poll finds that 72 percent of Americans support the United States’ responding with military force if a NATO ally in Europe were attacked (including roughly 8 in 10 Democrats and 7 in 10 Republicans). But that support plummets 20 points if the country under attack is not meeting its spending commitments. Americans don’t like free riders. They agree with Trump when he says that he will not defend allies who fail to contribute adequately to our collective defense.

What if some countries balk? If allies value the Article 5 security guarantee — the core of the alliance — they will not put it at risk by refusing reasonable obligations. If they do, Trump might be tempted to walk away from the alliance altogether, just as he threatened to pull out of NAFTA if Canada and Mexico did not agree to restructure that agreement. Indeed, he is probably the only president who could credibly make such a threat — which means he is the only president who can get allies to agree to these necessary, binding changes.

Trump has said that he “100 percent” wants to remain in the alliance, so long as the allies carry their weight. He would be right to insist that they do. Indeed, he should insist that they carry even more.


Launch a second Trump defense buildup.

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While many of our European allies have increased their defense spending as a percentage of GDP, U.S. defense spending has been falling over the past four years. President Biden has put the United States on track to spend the lowest percent of GDP on defense since 1999, when President Bill Clinton claimed a misguided post-Cold War “peace dividend.” Indeed, Biden would have reduced defense spending even more but for the Republican takeover of the House. If this downward trend is not reversed, U.S. defense spending could soon plunge to the lowest levels in at least seven decades.

The time has come for a second Trump defense buildup. Trump should increase defense spending to 5 percent of GDP, as Senate Republicans have proposed, so the United States can grow the Navy, add hundreds of fighter jets, accelerate production of the B-21 stealth bomber and next-generation attack submarines, and modernize our U.S. nuclear forces, among other priorities. (Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee have laid out a detailed plan to do this.)

During the Reagan defense buildup from 1980 to 1988, the United States devoted an average of 6.2 percent of GDP to defense. Even under Jimmy Carter, U.S. defense spending never dropped below 4.5 percent of GDP. The myriad threats we face today are in many ways even more dangerous than those of the Cold War — with an increasingly confrontational Russia, non-state terrorist actors backed by Iran sowing chaos in the Middle East, a regime in North Korea expanding its weapons of mass destruction capabilities and an adversary in Beijing working feverishly to expand its military power. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has called China the United States’ “pacing threat,” but we can’t continue to enact net defense cuts and keep pace with China, much less meet the growing challenge posed by the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran-Pyongyang axis.

Raising U.S. defense spending to 5 percent of GDP would also put to rest the argument that we must abandon Europe to focus on the threat from China. If the United States is investing 5 percent of GDP in defense, and NATO allies raise their spending to at least 3 percent, we should be able to do both.

Our military deterrent has dangerously atrophied under Biden. Trump can restore it.


Shift U.S. troops from Germany to Poland and the Baltic states.

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Germany has long been the biggest free rider in the NATO alliance. Despite having the largest economy in Europe, in 2023 Germany spent just 1.6 percent of GDP on defense. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany announced with great fanfare plans to create a 100 billion euro supplemental fund to modernize its military. But according to a recent Rand report, “Already spending pledges are being rolled back.” Berlin is projected to just meet the 2 percent of GDP threshold this year. But even if that happens, as soon as the supplemental fund runs out, Germany’s spending will crash again.

By contrast, Poland is spending more than 4 percent of GDP on defense in 2024 and has plans to reach 5 percent. Moreover, during the Trump administration, the Polish government offered up to $2 billion to cover most of the costs of building U.S. bases and supporting U.S. troops in Poland, declaring that it is committed “to share the burden of defense spending [and] make the decision more cost-effective for the U.S. government.”

The Baltic states are also among the few allies exceeding their NATO commitments: Lithuania is spending 2.85 percent of its GDP on defense, Latvia is spending 3.15 percent, and Estonia is spending 3.43 percent. Trump should reward allies who meet their alliance obligations by moving U.S. forces into their territory. He should also consider moving forces to southeastern Europe, in particular Romania (2.25 percent of GDP), which is under increasing Russian threat.

This would not just reward good allies; it would also be the right strategic posture for America. The logic for stationing large numbers of U.S. forces in Germany no longer exists. The line of contact has moved east, and so should U.S. military bases.

In addition, Trump should deploy ballistic missile defenses on the territory of our Eastern European allies. In 2009, the Obama-Biden administration canceled U.S. missile defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to appease Moscow. That appeasement clearly failed, as Putin invaded Ukraine on their watch five years later. In the wake of Putin’s latest aggression, his nuclear saber-rattling and his decision to move nuclear weapons into Belarus, Trump can reverse the Obama-era decision and deploy ballistic missile defenses to protect NATO allies from Russian nuclear intimidation.

This would enhance U.S. security and reward allies who not only meet but exceed their NATO commitments.


Force Putin to sue for peace by arming Ukraine.

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Trump has expressed confidence that he can end the war in Ukraine, but he can go further by offering a credible plan to prevent it from ever starting up again.

Trump has said that if Putin does not agree to end Russia’s aggression, he will dramatically increase U.S. aid to Ukraine. “I would tell Putin: If you don’t make a deal, we’re going to give [Ukraine] a lot,” he told Maria Bartiromo of Fox News last year. “We’re going to give them more than they ever got, if we have to.”

During the CNN presidential debate, Dana Bash asked Trump: “Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’ll only end this war if Russia keeps the Ukrainian territory it has already claimed and Ukraine abandons its bid to join NATO. Are Putin’s terms acceptable to you?” When pressed, Trump responded: “No, they’re not acceptable.” He’s right. But getting Putin to accept different terms will require Trump to follow through on his pledge to boost military aid to Kyiv — at least in the short term.

The model can be Trump’s successful campaign to destroy the Islamic State. Like the war in Ukraine, Trump believes this was a war he inherited, and that it should never have happened but for the weakness and incompetence of his predecessor. He won it by removing the handcuffs Barack Obama had placed on our military and achieved a decisive victory. He can do the same in Ukraine by giving Kyiv all the weapons Biden has withheld or slow-rolled, and lifting restrictions on their use on Russian territory, so Ukraine can regain the offensive. This would create leverage to force Putin to the negotiating table.

But Trump would also need to make sure any peace deal he helps strike is irreversible.

The danger for Trump is that Putin would wait him out — agree to a temporary cease-fire while Trump is in office, then resume his conquest once Trump has left and is replaced by a weaker American president. We know because he has done this before: Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 under Obama, paused his conquest under Trump, then resumed it again under Biden in 2022.

The only way to stop Putin from attacking again is to make a resumption of war impossible. And the only way to do that is to bring Ukraine into NATO with defensible borders. Putin knows he would lose a war with NATO, which is why he has invaded only non-NATO countries. Trump’s legacy thus depends on cementing any peace deal by making its lines inviolable. That requires that the boundaries be backed by NATO security guarantees.

A Trump-brokered peace deal backed by NATO membership for Ukraine would benefit the U.S. economically. As The Post has reported: “Ukraine harbors some of the world’s largest reserves of titanium and iron ore, fields of untapped lithium and massive deposits of coal. Collectively, they are worth tens of trillions of dollars.” Putin wants those natural resources to go to Russia. But if Trump negotiates a lasting peace deal — and secures it by bringing Ukraine into NATO — he can get the United States preferential access to those resources.

And Ukraine would be a better NATO ally than many current member states. It now has the most capable, battle-hardened, NATO-interoperable military in Europe. Unlike some allies, Ukraine will have no hesitation over meeting a NATO obligation to spend 3 percent of its GDP on defense. (It was already spending about 3.2 percent before Russia’s full-scale invasion.) Kyiv will be a net contributor to European security and thus strengthen the NATO alliance.


Finally, globalize NATO to include our Pacific allies.

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Russia and North Korea just signed a mutual defense treaty in Pyongyang, while Russia and China have forged a “no-limits” partnership that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Trump should do the same by inviting our major Pacific allies to join the NATO alliance.

He should start with Australia and Japan, which meet all the criteria for full NATO membership and could be admitted as easily as Sweden and Finland. Both are thriving democracies and would be net security contributors as NATO allies. Australia just announced a record $37 billion defense budget and is purchasing nuclear submarines from the United States and Britain. Japan has announced plans to raise its defense spending by $315 billion over the next five years, an increase of more than 50 percent that will give Japan one of the largest defense budgets in the world. Admitting Australia and Japan would create a path for South Korea and perhaps New Zealand to one day join the alliance as well.

NATO membership would address one of Trump’s main complaints about our alliance with Japan: that the United States has a treaty obligation to defend Tokyo, but that obligation is not reciprocal. Bringing Japan under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty would solve that problem. Australia has long fought beside the United States in wartime. NATO membership would formalize that commitment and extend it to all NATO allies. And it would mean that every NATO ally — not just the United States — is obligated to the collective defense of Pacific as well as Atlantic democracies.

It would also foster greater Atlantic-Pacific military-industrial cooperation, increase the interoperability of our militaries and strengthen our deterrent with China — thus imposing a cost on Beijing for funding a proxy war against the West in Ukraine.

In addition, expanding NATO to the Pacific would finally bring Hawaii under the protection of Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Right now, Hawaii is not covered because Article 6 limits the treaty’s geographic scope to the “North Atlantic area.” So if an adversary attacked, say, the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, NATO members currently are not obligated to come to America’s defense. That is ridiculous.

Each of these steps would be worthy of bipartisan support. But many of the elements of this plan — such as higher defense spending and a willingness to use aggressive leverage on allies — would only be plausible coming from Trump. With these six steps, Trump could do more than get allies to spend more. He could remake an alliance forged in the last century and position it to meet the threats of a new one. Today, in the wake of Russia’s aggression, China’s belligerence and the growing cooperation between the world’s revanchist regimes, the time has come to strengthen NATO with new members, inviolable spending commitments and consequences for failing to meet them.

In short, it is time to make NATO great again.

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