Analysis: Trump’s unspoken words leave NATO allies wondering

Updated May 26, 2017 - 8:12 am

TAORMINA, Sicily — President Donald Trump did something that drives his critics crazy at the NATO mini-summit in Brussels on Thursday. He set up the expectation that he would take a policy position – in this case, endorsing the key NATO tenet of mutual defense — and then he didn’t.

As stone-faced world leaders looked on during ceremonies to celebrate the alliance, Trump praised NATO, and then he scolded NATO. But he did not say the words they wanted him to say — that he supports Article 5, the charter provision that requires all 28 member nations to consider an attack against one to be an attack against all.

NATO has exercised the provision only once, after 9/11, when it sent troops to fight beside American troops in Afghanistan.

The Trump administration had sent signals that Trump would endorse the article, as every other president has done since NATO’s inception in 1949.

NATO officials were hopeful of getting a public show of solidarity from the president, buoyed by a $1.4 billion boost in U.S. funding for the European Reassurance Initiative — designed to bolster the alliance’s European security — in 2017. And the very fact that Trump had agreed to dedicate a new 9/11 and Article 5 monument at NATO’s gleaming new headquarters seemed to suggest that he wanted to paper over differences that burst into the open during his 2016 campaign.

Appreciation, then a rebuke

But Trump dedicated the memorial — a steel beam from the 107th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers that collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001 — and said nothing about the NATO charter article, which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg characterized in “Three Musketeers” terms, “One for all and all for one.”

Trump started his remarks with the level of praise one expects at memorial dedications.

“A strong NATO is good for Europe and good for North America,” he said.

He then switched tone and did something few politicians have the inclination to do in public: Look his fellow world leaders in the eye and dress them down.

He reiterated one of his biggest complaints, saying members are not keeping their commitment to spend 2 percent of their GDP on the military. Out of the 28 member nations, he said, 23 do not pay their “fair share.”

He also slipped in an aside on the cost of NATO’s pricey new 11-story headquarters. “And I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost. I refuse to do that.”

Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Trump’s silence on Article 5 could have been calculated. His failure to articulate his views precisely often keeps observers wondering what he meant when he did or did not say something, he said.

“The European leaders will likely remain cautious — and quietly cynical — about President Trump’s leadership,” Henderson predicted. “They are very scared about ISIS but are reluctant to become involved in the Middle East in any meaningful way.”

Spicer plays down omission

However, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg did announce Thursday that the alliance would join the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, saying the move sends “a strong message of unity and NATO’s commitment to the fight against terrorism.”

And White House press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to indicate that people were reading too much into the president’s omission.

He noted that Trump mentioned Article 5 — albeit without formally endorsing it — at the beginning of his remarks. And he said Trump’s mere presence at the dedication spoke volumes as far as U.S. support for the mutual defense principle.

Trump’s first presidential foreign tour started in Riyadh with the goal of mending fences with long-term Middle Eastern allies who felt undervalued under President Barack Obama. Trump said he chose Saudi Arabia because his top foreign policy goal is to forge a global alliance that includes countries of all religions, including Muslim-majority countries, to fight terrorist groups like IS.

The NATO visit afforded Trump a chance to reassure long-term allies whose participation is vital in this effort.

But University of California, Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who served as an attorney in the administration of President George W. Bush, said the failure to explicitly state U.S. support for Article 5 did nothing to accomplish that goal.

“It looks like he just didn’t affirmatively endorse it. But if he didn’t, then what is the point of staying in NATO?” he said in an email. “The mutual defense provision is the heart of the Atlantic Alliance; everything else is just the frame around the painting. If Trump truly intends to bring our commitment to NATO into doubt, he will have unraveled the accomplishments of every U.S. president from FDR on to end war in Europe.”

As a candidate, Trump infuriated Western European leaders when he said NATO “may be obsolete,” and it would be fine with him if the alliance broke up. Trump also questioned Article 5.

After winning the election, Trump continued to hector European leaders for not paying enough on the military. But when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited the White House in April, Trump declared the alliance “no longer obsolete.” Trump’s turnabout on NATO led some experts to believe that the friction was easing. But Thursday’s confrontational summit raises new questions about the president’s direction.

‘Western values, not just interests’

Earlier Wednesday, Trump met with European Union leaders and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, who has advertised his campaign to keep the United States in the Paris climate change accord.

The gulf between Western European leaders and Trump was evident when European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted after meeting Trump, “My message to @POTUS: Values, principles first! Greatest task today is to consolidate free world around Western values, not just interests.”

But that world view, to Trump’s thinking, puts the value of supporting democracies over American national security interests. And that doesn’t sit well with the “America first” president.

The mini-summit happened at a raw time for the alliance. On Monday a Manchester, England, suicide bomber killed 22 people, including many children, and wounded many more in an attack claimed by IS. British authorities fear related coordinated attacks. Europe is paying attention.

Yet the White House is not in a strong position, because someone in American law enforcement apparently leaked information about the terror plot to the media, including the New York Times. British Prime Minister Theresa May is angry and wary. This is the second intelligence leak in the month of May; Trump himself inadvertently gave Russian officials information that pointed to Israel as a source for intelligence about an IS plot to blow up bombs using laptops in flight.

As the president was leaving for the last leg of the foreign tour — a G7 meeting in Sicily — the White House released a statement in which Trump called on the Department of Justice “to launch a complete review of this matter, and if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Contact Debra J. Saunders at or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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