Bolton, one of the Trump White House’s most vocal critics, has long expressed dismay over Trump’s tenure. In his postmortem book, “The Room Where it Happened,” he portrayed Trump as unfamiliar with basic facts and motivated above all by a desire to win another term. According to Bolton, this is no different from Trump’s recent comments on NATO. This does not change the reality that Trump wants to withdraw from the alliance that helped anchor the U.S.-led global order for decades. And Bolton wants Trump’s defenders to recognize that.
“I think there are Republicans who support Trump who say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’ He won’t do it, so on. I tell you, I was in Brussels when he almost did it,” Bolton said.
And if Trump destroys NATO, he warned, the consequences would be disastrous.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your first impression when you heard Trump’s comments on NATO?
At the 2018 NATO summit, he came very close to withdrawing from NATO at the summit. So each of these comments, as he makes them now over six years, only reinforces in my opinion that the idea of withdrawing from NATO is very serious for him. People say, “Well, he’s not really serious.” He is negotiating with NATO.” Look, I was there when he almost pulled out, and he’s not negotiating – because his goal here is not to strengthen NATO, but to prepare the ground to get out.
We have been telling NATO allies for decades that they need to increase their defense spending. And those of us who have been doing this for a long time have done it to strengthen NATO so that the United States can be more flexible around the world. When Trump complains that NATO allies aren’t spending enough on defense, he’s not complaining to get them to strengthen NATO. He uses it to reinforce his excuse for going out.
So you don’t think Trump would stop threatening his allies if they simply met NATO’s goal of spending 2% of their GDP on defense?
For many of these allies – like Germany in particular – it’s not just a matter of saying, “OK, well, we’re going to start spending more on defense.” The commitment that motivated all this – at the NATO summit in Cardiff, Wales, in 2014 – was that over a 10-year period, all NATO members would end up devoting 2% or more of their gross domestic product to defense, and that has not happened. Expenditures have increased in recent years. And Trump is largely responsible for that.
But again, if you look at Germany, NATO’s second-largest economy, its growth rate is still at 1.2 or 1.3 percent, somewhere in that range. What Trump is saying is: Look, first of all, the Europeans pay billions of dollars every year to Russia for natural gas. Second, he says, the Europeans are misleading us in trade negotiations. And third, they are not spending enough to meet their NATO commitments. So even if people started to become interested in this, I don’t think it would change their minds.
Congress has passed new restrictions that could limit a president’s ability to leave NATO. Would this tie Trump’s hands?
Well, it was never definitively decided whether a president could unilaterally withdraw from the treaty, but it has happened many times throughout American history. I myself participated in several examples: George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty with Russia . Congress doesn’t like it, but I think the constitutional logic is that it’s entirely up to the president. This status will therefore not retain him.
I think if this were tested in court it would be found unconstitutional. But even if I’m totally wrong and Trump announces he’s withdrawing from NATO, someone files a lawsuit under that statute, and you litigate for two or three years – imagine the damage done to NATO, while Trump openly attacks it.
What would be the consequences of Trump withdrawing the United States from NATO? What would this mean for the country and the world?
This would mean the end of NATO. We are the leader of NATO, and what would survive would be the remnants of some sort of European Union structure, but that would have implications beyond Europe and North America. I think it would be catastrophic for the credibility of the United States in the world. If we are prepared to reject NATO, no American alliance is safe. Many people, for example, say that Trump would be much better for Israel than Biden has been. Well, if Trump is willing to stab NATO, what makes you think he wouldn’t stab Israel if it suited his goals?
What would it mean for U.S. security if the United States were unable to form alliances that other countries could trust?
That would be devastating, and part of this desire to exit NATO is because Trump has no idea of the usefulness of alliance structures and their benefits. He spent four years as president, he knew nothing about it when he entered the Oval Office, and he knew nothing about it when he left it. He therefore has no idea of the damage that a withdrawal from NATO would cause. He may be the only figure in American politics who thinks this – there are some weirdos who don’t care, frankly, what effect this would have, but they are a very distinct minority.
Are there incentives for these countries to actually start increasing the amounts they spend on defense?
It will never be enough. For some of these countries, this is close to doubling their defense spending. And you just can’t snap your fingers or flip a switch and make it happen. So in two years, a number of them would still not be at 2 percent, and all the pressure – with the threat of Russia in Europe, with the unrest in the Middle East, with the threat posed by China – pressure increases defense spending.
For example, the Japanese only spend about 1% of their GDP, and when Prime Minister (Fumio) Kishida was here in Washington a few months ago, he promised that Japan would double its defense spending to 2% of GDP over five years. period, which is a pretty rapid buildup. And considering that if the Japanese economy is expected to grow over the next five years, it is obviously expected to more than double in real terms. So this is a pretty spectacular step for Japan to take, and one that will only get it to 2% if it manages to keep this commitment.
Why should voters care?
Well, if they want to secure a country, it is essential to have alliances that help strengthen our power in the world. You know, the world has no natural order. And the order that exists is essentially provided by the United States and its alliances. We are not doing this out of charity. We do this because it is in our national interest to ensure that trade, investment and everything else in the world is not threatened by hostile, belligerent and aggressive nations. It is true that most allies probably benefit to some extent from American power – and they should pay more. But the answer when they don’t is don’t cut off your nose to upset your face.
How can Trump’s opponents get voters to pay attention?
I think the political leaders of both parties have not done a good job in over 30 years, since the fall of the Soviet Union and the victory of the Cold War, of explaining to people that what is happening in the he international scale can threaten our economy and our way of life here. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was talk of the “end of history.” And everyone said “it’s the economy, stupid,” as if international affairs meant nothing.
Well, I think people are waking up, and it’s important and it should be encouraged. But political leaders must explain and justify to voters why these threats require an American response. My answer is Ronald Reagan’s approach that peace comes through strength, and that requires spending money to have a bigger defense. But if political leaders don’t explain it to American voters, it’s no surprise they wonder why they’re being asked to do so.
Does the conversation he recounted seem real to you?
I’ve never heard him say anything like that, and the way the conversation is going doesn’t seem real. You know, he makes up a lot of conversations where people always call him “Sir.” You know, maybe his subordinates call him sir, because it’s the right thing to do. But foreign leaders don’t call him sir. They either call him Mr. President or Donald, number one. But second, just because this is an imaginary conversation that makes Trump look really good – as all of Trump’s imaginary conversations do – doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe what he’s saying.