LONDON — President Donald Trump has often shocked and confounded the world with his unique brand of rhetoric. But on Thursday it was what he did not say that caused a stir.
The 45th president had been expected to promise that America would defend its NATO allies if they ever came under attack. That principle of collective defense is, in theory, cemented by Article 5 of the alliance’s charter, NATO’s core tenet. It means that “an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all.”
No other president since NATO was founded in 1949 has questioned that principle — until Trump.
He’s called the alliance “obsolete” and has repeatedly urged its members to pay more toward bolstering their own militaries. Many of these nations do not currently meet NATO’s recommended spending targets, and Trump has threatened that, unless they up their game, the U.S. might not back them up in a fight.
Asked in a New York Times interview last July whether he would protect smaller states from Russia, he said his support would be conditional on them paying up.
“If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes,” he said.
But he has never explicitly endorsed Article 5.
Many commentators expected that to change Thursday when Trump gave a speech at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. After all, he was speaking alongside a mangled girder from the World Trade Center, a shrine whose very name was “The 9/11 and Article 5 Memorial.”
The name refers to the attack on New York’s twin towers, the only time Article 5 has actually been invoked. More than 1,000 military personnel from America’s NATO allies have died in the subsequent U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.
Ahead of Thursday’s speech, The New York Times quoted an administration official who was “briefed on the president’s planned remarks” and said that Trump would make the promise.
But his speech stopped short of doing so.
Trump thanked other members for their support following 9/11 — “our NATO allies responded swiftly and decisively” — but was far from explicit on Article 5.
The president’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, told reporters afterward that Trump’s mere attendance was a tacit acknowledgement of his commitment to the mutual-defense clause.
“We all understand that by being part of NATO we have treaty obligations and commitments that we made as being part of NATO,” Spicer said. “So to have to reaffirm something by the very nature of being here and speaking at a ceremony about it is almost laughable.”