Long before Donald J. Trump threatened over the weekend that he was willing to let Russia “do whatever the hell they want” against NATO allies that do not contribute sufficiently to collective defense, European leaders were quietly discussing how they might prepare for a world in which America removes itself as the centerpiece of the 75-year-old alliance.
Even allowing for the usual bombast of one of his campaign rallies, where he made his declaration on Saturday, Mr. Trump may now force Europe’s debate into a far more public phase.
So far the discussion in the European media has focused on whether the former president, if returned to office, would pull the United States out of NATO.
But the larger implication of his statement is that he might invite President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to pick off a NATO nation, as a warning and a lesson to the 30 or so others about heeding Mr. Trump’s demands.
His statement stunned many in Europe, especially after three years in which President Biden, attempting to restore the confidence in the alliance lost during Mr. Trump’s four years in office, has repeatedly said that the United States would “defend every inch of NATO territory.” And while a spokesman for the White House, Andrew Bates, denounced Mr. Trump’s comments as “unhinged,” by Sunday morning they had already resonated with those who have argued that Europe cannot depend on the United States to deter Russia.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, which comprises Europe’s heads of government and defines their common policies, wrote that “reckless statements” like Mr. 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 defense.”
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