Back in July, Donald Trump suggested off-handedly that he would upend decades of U.S. national security policy when told the New York Times that NATO member countries in the Baltics could count on U.S. support only if they “fulfill their obligations to us.” This was problematic not only because it suggested he was interested in transforming America from world’s policeman to global protection racket, and also because Baltic state Estonia actually is meeting its NATO military spending target.
But during the debate Monday night, Trump suggested—sort of, kind of, maybe—that he’s coming around on the alliance:
But when you look at NATO—I was asking on a major show, what do you think of NATO. I’m a businessman. But I have common sense. I said, well, I’ll tell you, I haven’t given lots of thought to NATO but two things. No. 1, the 28 countries of NATO, many of them aren’t paying their fair share. No. 2, that bothers me, because we’re defending them and they should be at least paying us what they’re supposed to be paying by treaty and contract, and, No. 2, I said and very strongly, NATO could be obsolete because—and I was very strong on this, and it was actually covered very accurately in the New York Times which is unusual for the New York Times, to be honest. But I said they do not focus on terror, and I was very strong. And I said it numerous times. And about four months ago I read on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that NATO is opening up a major terror division and I think that’s great.
And I think we should get—because we pay approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO, it’s a lot of money to protect other people, but I’m all for NATO, but I said they have to focus on terror also. And they’re going to do that. And that was, believe me, not going to get credit for it, but that was largely because of what I was saying and my criticism of NATO. I think we have to get NATO to go into the Middle East with us, in addition to surrounding nations, and we have to knock the hell out of ISIS and we have to do it fast.
OK, where to begin? Trump—amazingly—seems to think that NATO is taking marching orders from his interviews, a claim PolitiFact judged “false” when he made it in August. He also seems to think that an organization that operated in Afghanistan for more than a decade—its longest mission ever—is suddenly discovering what terrorism is. (As Hillary Clinton mentioned later on, the organization’s Article 5 mutual-defense treaty has been invoked only once: after 9/11.) And while the military operations against ISIS aren’t being carried out under NATO auspices, a number of NATO members—including Britain, France, and Turkey—have also already gone “into the Middle East with us.”
Trump didn’t specify, and unfortunately wasn’t pressed, on whether he still thinks that the U.S. should ignore its treaty commitments to NATO members based on their financial contributions. But overall, Trump seems much more bullish on NATO these days. Evidently, one bureaucratic change, reported in an article that happened to mention Trump’s name was enough to make him happy.