- By Julie SmithJulianne ("Julie") Smith is director of the strategy and statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, she served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
When President Trump spoke to NATO members for the first time on Thursday he failed to say the one thing Europeans were waiting to hear. He never mentioned America’s unwavering commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Twitter erupted in a storm of outrage and, for at least a few hours, #NATO was trending. Sean Spicer, responding to the criticism, stressed that even though the president didn’t say it outright, he is “fully committed” to NATO and Article 5.
Spicer’s logic? Trump’s mere presence at the dedication ceremony at the new NATO HQ was evidence enough. For folks that don’t track NATO issues on a day-to-day basis (and that’s most people), the president’s omission may not seem like a big deal. But Trump’s refusal to repeat what so many members of his own Cabinet have already stated — including his vice president — was a significant blow to the transatlantic relationship and could have lasting consequences.
Why were Europeans so eager to hear Trump utter the words “Article 5”? It was just last summer when Trump, in an interview with the New York Times, alluded to the fact that the United States could make its commitment to Article 5 conditional on whether the country in question was spending enough on defense. That sent a shiver down the spines of many NATO allies as they imagined calling Washington in a crisis — only to be asked first asked whether they had met the 2 percent target. (For many, the answer would be no.) Throughout the campaign, Trump also called the alliance “obsolete” (before he said it was “no longer” obsolete) and has repeatedly claimed — falsely — that NATO allies owe the United States vast sums of money.
But as wrong as Trump has been about NATO over the last two years, Europeans have known that he’s been right about one thing: allies need to invest more in their own national defense. That’s the irony of yesterday’s tragic episode. Europe came to the NATO Summit this week ready to meet the president halfway. They know the parade of secretaries of defense and past presidents that have urged them to do more were right. Many allies have even worked to accelerate their plans to reach the 2 percent target in an attempt to give the alliance and the new U.S. president a solid win. But in order to convince their publics to support those costly defense investments, they needed some reassurance from Trump in return. Now that he’s failed to provide that reassurance, Trump himself may have just hindered his ability to move the needle.
Adding insult to injury, Trump also failed to say anything of substance about Russia, the future of sanctions, or enhanced deterrence measures across Central and Eastern Europe. Silence on those issues has generated even more anxiety and forced Europeans to draw their own conclusions. Paired with the omission on Article 5, some allies are already assuming that the United States won’t come to their aid if Russia does something rash on their territory or in their neighborhood. Moscow literally could not have asked for a better outcome since its longstanding goal has been to undermine NATO, U.S. credibility, and transatlantic unity.
Instead of inspiring the alliance to move ahead with much-needed reforms and turn its attention to the many threats NATO allies face on both sides of the Atlantic, Trump did the exact opposite. He fueled uncertainty and insecurity, which will serve as an obstacle to transatlantic cooperation in the years ahead. Why, allies are already asking themselves, should we make politically difficult decisions to invest in our defense when it’s unclear whether the United States has our back? Trump could have cleared that up with a single sentence yesterday.
Instead, he and a few ill-informed, inexperienced, and short-sighted members of his team opted for petulance and arrogance — a decision that plays well with Trump’s base but won’t serve them well with America’s closest allies.
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