President Donald Trump meets with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during the NATO summit at The Grove, Wednesday, December 4, 2019, in Watford, England. Former US President Donald Trump says he once warned that he would allow Russia to do whatever it wanted with NATO member countries that are “delinquent” in devoting 2% of their gross domestic product to defense. Trump's comment on Saturday represented the latest example in which the former president and leading Republican candidate appeared to side with an authoritarian state over America's democratic allies. PHOTO FROM AP FILE

WARSAW, Poland – Donald Trump, the leading U.S. candidate for the Republican Party nomination this year, says he once warned that he would allow Russia to do whatever it wanted to NATO member countries that are “delinquent” in devoting 2% of their gross domestic product for defense.

Trump's comment on Saturday represented the latest example in which the former president appeared to side with an authoritarian state over America's democratic allies. He also adds evidence that the 77-year-old either doesn't understand how NATO works or is distorting the truth for political gain.

What did Trump say?

Speaking at a rally in Conway, South Carolina, Trump recalled how, as president, he told an unnamed NATO member that he would refuse U.S. aid and “encourage” Russia to do what it wants with non-contributing allies. enough for military expenses.

“'You didn't pay? Are you delinquent?'” Trump was quoted as saying. “'No, I wouldn't protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever they want. You have to pay. You have to pay your bills.'”

READ: Donald Trump defiant after backlash over NATO comments

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg responded with an unusually strong statement, saying Trump was threatening the security of the entire transatlantic alliance.

“Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines our entire security, including that of the United States, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk,” Stoltenberg said.

President Joe Biden, who is on track for a rematch against Trump in November, also issued a statement criticizing Trump.

“Donald Trump’s admission that he intends to give Putin the green light for more war and violence, to continue his brutal attack on a free Ukraine and to expand his aggression on the people of Poland and the Baltic States is appalling and dangerous,” Biden said. he said.

What did Trump get wrong?

NATO members do not pay to belong and owe the organization nothing other than contributions to a largely administrative fund. Trump was clearly not referring to these administrative payments.

His frequent complaint during his presidency, and now, has been the amount NATO countries invest in their own military budgets.

US presidents before him have raised this concern. In fact, it was in 2014, during the Barack Obama administration, that NATO members agreed to move “towards” spending 2% of GDP on national defense by 2024. Stoltenberg also said that members needed to invest more in their armed forces.

At their last summit, in Lithuania in July, NATO leaders adjusted that commitment, agreeing to spend at least 2% of GDP on their military budgets. No target date has been set for achieving the goal.

The 2% is a reference that each member must spend on their own defense in order to contribute to the joint defense of the alliance. However, the goal is voluntary and there is no debt or “default” involved.

Countries do not pay the money to NATO, but invest it in their own armed forces.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago gave them additional impetus to reinforce their armies.

What is NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded after World War II in an attempt to prevent the expansion of Soviet control in Europe, at a time when the eastern part of the continent was under the firm control of the Kremlin.

The alliance's first secretary general, British General Hasting Ismay, said the aim was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. The oft-repeated comment highlights how fear of Russia's expansion has been part of the alliance's DNA from the beginning.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led some to question whether NATO still had a purpose. Russia, for its part, has watched angrily as the military alliance grows eastward. President Vladimir Putin has warned for years that Moscow sees NATO's expansion into what the country considers its historical sphere of influence as a threat.

Putin tried to justify his war against Ukraine, in part by citing NATO enlargement, even though Ukraine had no immediate prospects of joining the alliance when Russian troops entered the neighboring country in February 2022. However, NATO leaders said that Ukraine will join the alliance at some point. point in the future.

READ: Trump told NATO: Increase defense or Russia will do 'whatever it wants'

NATO currently has 31 members. Finland became the newest member last year, breaking with decades of non-alignment after Russia invaded Ukraine. Sweden also hopes to join, but is still awaiting approval from Hungary, the only member that has not ratified the Scandinavian country's candidacy.

What else has Trump said on the matter?

Trump has a history of misrepresenting NATO or suggesting that the United States might not honor its commitment to its allies. Former national security adviser John Bolton said in a memoir that Trump was close to withdrawing the US from NATO in 2018.

Trump spoke that year about NATO as if it were a bankrupt company, until he showed up. “I went to NATO. And NATO was essentially going out of business because people weren't paying and it was falling, falling, falling,” he said.

He also lamented that Americans were “the idiots who are paying for everything.” US defense spending, although well above 2%, has been declining for years.

While Trump's bullying of allies into spending more on defense during his presidency may have spurred some to do so, Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a greater catalyst in pushing them to make much larger investments.

When did NATO come to the defense of an ally?

On the ground, NATO helped keep peace in the Balkans and helped provide security in Afghanistan after a US-led coalition invaded the country. The US triggered NATO's common defense clause, known as Article 5, for the first and only time in the alliance's history after the September 11, 2001 attack.

“Poland then sent a military brigade to Afghanistan for a decade and we did not send an invoice to Washington for that. Alliances also strengthen the United States,” Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said on Monday.

Sikorski said that if he had the opportunity to speak to Trump, he would tell him that the North Atlantic alliance “is not a contract with a security company.” But he also said he prefers to remember Trump as a president who sent American darts and anti-tank missiles to Ukraine even before Putin's attack on Ukraine.

Even during his presidency, Trump threatened not to help allies who could be under attack if they had not paid their debts.

His presidency raised questions about whether the US would remain committed to the collective defense of the West, and fears returned in anticipation of a likely rematch between him and Biden.

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A defense policy bill approved by the US House of Representatives in December includes provisions that the president must obtain the advice and consent of the Senate or an act of Congress before withdrawing the US from NATO membership.