July 03, 2024 13 min read

Donald Trump has threatened to leave NATO so many times — or has appeared to, anyway — that for many of his critics, it’s a question of when, not whether, he’d ditch the 75-year-old alliance if he’s reelected president in November.

In truth, Trump would be unlikely to quit NATO outright, according to interviews with former Trump national security officials and defense experts who are likely to serve in a second Trump term. But even if he doesn’t formally leave the organization, that doesn’t mean NATO would survive a second Trump term intact.

In return for continued U.S. participation, Trump would not only expect that European countries drastically increase their spending on NATO — his main complaint when he was president — but also undertake what one defense expert familiar with the thinking inside Trump’s national-security advisory circle, Dan Caldwell describes as a “radical reorientation” of NATO.


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“We don’t really have a choice anymore,” Caldwell told POLITICO Magazine, citing rising U.S. debt, flagging military recruiting, and a defense industrial base that can’t keep up with the challenge from both Russia and China.

Neither Trump nor his campaign has yet named a new national security team or openly embraced a new agenda for NATO. The campaign did not respond to several requests for comment for this article.

But the former officials and experts who spoke for this article — some on the record and some on condition of anonymity — are engaged in an ongoing debate within Trump world over how hard to push the Europeans toward a security architecture more to Trump’s liking.

According to these officials, the U.S. would keep its nuclear umbrella over Europe during a second Trump term by maintaining its airpower and bases in Germany, England and Turkey, and its naval forces as well. Meanwhile, the bulk of infantry, armor, logistics and artillery would ultimately pass from American to European hands. Parts of this plan were floated in an article published in February 2023 by the Trump-affiliated Center for Renewing America, but in the months since, there’s been an emerging and more detailed consensus among Trump supporters on an outline of a new concept for NATO.

The shift they envision would involve “significantly and substantially downsizing America’s security role — stepping back instead of being the primary provider of combat power in Europe, somebody who provides support only in times of crisis,” said Caldwell, who recently served as a senior advisor to Russell Vought, the former senior Trump administration official who in May was named policy director for the Republican National Convention and who is expected to play a senior role in a second Trump administration. Vought is also president of the CRA.

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