On Tuesday evening, Tucker Carlson aired an interview with President Trump, filmed before Trump’s quasi-walkback of his comments in his press conference with Vladimir Putin. That interview not only undercut Trump’s walkback, it also reinforced the widespread perception that Trump sees the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a net negative for the United States.
In particular, Trump questioned whether the United States ought to protect its NATO allies:
Carlson asked Trump about the mutual defense pledges in the NATO charter, specifically asking why his son should go to die for Montenegro if Montenegro is attacked. Trump answered, exasperated, “I understand what you’re saying, I’ve asked the same question. You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. And by the way, they’re very strong people. They’re very aggressive people. And they may get aggressive. And congratulations, you’re in World War III. But that’s the way it was set up. Remember, I just got here a little over a year and a half ago, and I took over the conversation three or four days ago and I said, ‘You have to pay, you have to pay.’… It was very unfair, they weren’t paying, so not only were we paying for most of it, but they weren’t even paying and we’re protecting them. So add that to your little equation on Montenegro.”
This is inane in the highest degree, for a variety of reasons.
Start with Trump’s suggestion that Montenegro wasn’t “paying.” NATO defense commitments aren’t a giant grab bag of cash to which each country pays. Montenegro’s failure to commit 2% of their GDP to defense doesn’t mean they owe us money. It means they haven’t been strong enough on their own defense spending — and Trump is correct that they should increase that spending. But it is NATO commitment that prevents Russian invasion, not the difference between 1.6% and 2% of GDP spent on defense.
Then take Trump’s suggestion that mutual defense pacts increase the chances of war. That hasn’t been true since World War I (even in that case, it’s arguable whether mutual defense pacts drove to the war). It’s generally been lack of mutual defense that has led aggressive dictators to war. Putin hasn’t invaded Montenegro or attempted a coup there because of NATO commitments. NATO’s presence has led to 70 years of stability on a continent rife with war for hundreds of years prior.
And how about Trump’s suggestion that Montenegro will get “aggressive” with Russia? It’s Russian propaganda, pure and simple. Montenegro underwent an attempted coup in 2016, including an attempted assassination of the prime minister, allegedly with the help of the Russian security services.
Then there’s the biggie: Trump’s suggestion that mutual defense under NATO is a problem. The NATO charter has been invoked precisely once: when NATO came to the United States’ defense in 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Montenegro has soldiers stationed in Afghanistan thanks to that NATO commitment.
All of which suggests that Trump’s take on NATO could actually lead to aggression from Putin. Weakness and isolationism on the international stage breed aggression by dictators. Putin knows this, and he’s always ready to move.