Few things unnerved U.S. allies more than President Donald Trump’s refusal to publicly back the U.S. commitment to NATO’s mutual defense at the organization’s meeting in May.
After months of assurances from top U.S. military and national security officials, European allies on Thursday finally heard the words they had been waiting for, when Trump said “we stand firmly behind Article Five” in a speech in Warsaw. But that doesn’t erase the damage caused by his initial omission and long-stated hostility to the alliance.
“The president is having to deal with the legacy of his own comments on this issue, questioning NATO and Article Five,” said Jamie Fly, who served on the National Security Council and in the Pentagon during the administration of George W. Bush. “All the lower-level administration efforts to reassure them weren’t entirely successful because of these doubts about the president’s personal commitment.”
Before Trump’s first trip abroad in May, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis spent a significant portion of his time as Pentagon chief visiting allies and repeatedly backing the provision — which states that an attack on one member country is an attack on all — calling the U.S. commitment “rock solid,” “iron clad” and the “absolute bedrock” of the alliance.
The fact that they decided to go to Poland and do this speech shows that the administration heard the criticism and tried to clarify its message today.
Jamie Fly, former National Security Council and Pentagon official
When Trump chose not to mention the mutual defense clause during the trip — despite the expectations by European allies and the members of his cabinet — the omission stressed already rocky relations with Europe.
“It absolutely undercut every one of his cabinet ministers, including Pence,” said Heather Conley, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs under George W. Bush. “This assurance can only come from the president, and it harmed his national security team who may not be given full credibility anymore.”
On the campaign trail, Trump called the 70-year old security alliance “obsolete” and hinted that he would make the U.S. commitment conditional on defense spending by the other member countries. The provision has only been invoked one time, after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Trump’s refusal to reaffirm Article Five seemed to confirm allies’ fears that his campaign talk would become policy, Conley said.
“It made it worse, because now they really needed to hear it,” she said, calling the meeting in Brussels “devastating.” “Like in any relationship, when trust and credibility is broken it doesn’t immediately repair. Now that he has said the words, the next step will be how do we rebuild this relationship?”
Trump has said he supports Article Five once before, during a June press conference — but only in response to a question. Thursday’s affirmation, when it finally came, was paired with another scolding of European countries for not spending enough on defense.
“The heavy hitting on defense spending means that even though he said the right words today, it’s eroding the confidence in America’s security commitment,” Conley said. “No one is arguing that Europe that not need to spend more on its defense, but it’s not pay to play, it’s mutual security.”
Speaking on Thursday in Poland, which hosts 5,000 U.S. troops to deter destabilizing behavior by Russia, Trump said that sending U.S. forces and resources to the alliance should make its commitment clear.
Like in any relationship, when trust and credibility is broken it doesn’t immediately repair.
Heather Conley, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs under George W. Bush
“The United States has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article Five” he said. “Words are easy but actions are what matters.”
He also said that “billions and billions of dollars” are coming into NATO due to his insistence on countries upping their defense spending. While it is true that NATO countries are spending more on their defense, that boost began before he took office, in response to perceived threats from Russia and the rise of the Islamic State.
It was apparent to European allies that Trump has a “deep personal aversion to the idea” of the mutual defense clause, but was under pressure to deliver, said Dana Allin, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, a defense think tank.
“It’s blindingly obvious that just saying the words today doesn’t dispel the doubts after having introduced this transactional view of an alliance,” he said. “He made it clear early on how he saw it - ‘If NATO will make it worthwhile to us we’ll be committed.’”
The tension around Article Five matters because it highlights Trump’s “professed hostility to NATO, as part of a bigger hostility to the European Union and alliances, while he seems to get along better with Saudi monarchs,” Allin said.
While defense analysts said that many Europeans are unlikely to easily reconcile with Trump, after his speech on Thursday they will be looking for him to make good on his promise of support — starting with his meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 meeting in Hamburg on Friday.
European allies will be watching to see whether Trump will take a tough line with Moscow, which he has urged to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere.”