Article 5 is the heart of NATO. It’s the section of NATO’s founding treaty where all the nations that participate in the alliance promise to come to the defense of any member under attack. Article 5 has been invoked exactly one time—by the United States following 9/11. In response to that call, every member of NATO contributed forces to the US-led fight in Afghanistan. Every member of NATO suffered casualties.
When Donald Trump appeared at the new headquarters of NATO, the occasion was actually a memorial to those lost in answering the demands of Article 5. Though, considering that Trump spent his time speculating on the cost of the building and delivering a hectoring, finger-waving demand for more protection funds, it would be difficult to determine if he knew the topic of the day. One thing is clear, he missed the topic of his own speech, because it was supposed to include a discussion of Article 5.
When President Donald Trump addressed NATO leaders during his debut overseas trip little more than a week ago, he surprised and disappointed European allies who hoped—and expected—he would use his speech to explicitly reaffirm America’s commitment to mutual defense of the alliance’s members, a one-for-all, all-for-one provision that looks increasingly urgent as Eastern European members worry about the threat from a resurgent Russia on their borders.
It wasn’t just NATO leaders who were surprised.
… the president also disappointed—and surprised—his own top national security officials by failing to include the language reaffirming the so-called Article 5 provision in his speech.
Trump’s national security and defense team carefully wrote support for Article 5 into his speech. Trump simply refused to deliver the line.
Trump’s decision to dump the speech and instead dump on NATO shocked even his own team.
It was not until the next day, Thursday, May 25, when Trump started talking at an opening ceremony for NATO’s new Brussels headquarters, that the president’s national security team realized their boss had made a decision with major consequences—without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change.
Instead of the speech that had been carefully written, vetted, and approved in advance, Trump decided to deliver an insulting demand for payment even as a relic from the World Trade Center was being installed to remind the member states of the one time they had been called on to spill blood together—in defense of the United States.
By altering the speech and leaving out the promised commitment to Article 5, Trump wrecked the solemnity of the occasion, absolutely shredded any illusion that the United States was the leader of NATO, and left his supporters scrambling to explain a lesser, petty, mean speech that was surely enjoyed nowhere west of the Kremlin.
… the episode suggests that what has been portrayed—correctly—as a major rift within the 70-year-old Atlantic alliance is also a significant moment of rupture inside the Trump administration, with the president withholding crucial information from his top national security officials—and then embarrassing them by forcing them to go out in public with awkward, unconvincing, after-the-fact claims that the speech really did amount to a commitment they knew it did not make.
It was a moment that weakened both NATO and the United States to satisfy Trump’s ego.
Expect more such moments.