In Brussels two weeks ago, US president Donald Trump shocked not just Europe, but reportedly his own national security team, when he neglected to declare his support for Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty, the cornerstone of the NATO alliance.
His failure to mention the rule, which says that an attack on one NATO member means an attack on all, threw into doubt the US’s decades-long guarantee that it would back Europe against Russian aggression. It also seemed part of a grand scheme to get European allies to pay more for collective defense. It even pushed Germany’s Angela Merkel to start contemplating the grim question of how to survive without Washington’s protection.
But apparently not. In the much more low-key setting of a joint press conference with Romanian president Klaus Iohannis at the White House today, Trump said that he was “committing the United States to Article Five.” With no new concessions announced from his European partners, all it needed to get Trump’s support was, apparently, a question from a Romanian journalist.
“Certainly, we are there to protect and that’s one of the reasons that I want people to make sure we have a very, very strong force by paying the kind of money necessary to have that force, but yes absolutely I’d be committed to Article Five,” he said.
In the same press conference, Trump also seemed to undermine his secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, on the matter of four Middle Eastern countries’ blockade of Qatar, which began on June 4. Just an hour or two earlier, Tillerson had called on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain “to ease the blockade,” which he said had “humanitarian consequences” and was “hindering” military operations (Qatar hosts the US’s Central Command and its biggest military airbase in the region). Trump, on the other hand, took a harder line.
“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” he said. At his meeting with Middle Eastern leaders in May, he went on, “nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behavior. So we had a decision to make—do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism. I decided, along with secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding—they have to end that funding, and its extremist ideology in terms of funding.”
In neither of these cases was Trump contradicting himself or Tillerson directly. But he was sending messages of a very different tone. Typically, presidents send carefully calibrated signals that set clear expectations—telling the US’s allies how much it can be relied on, and its adversaries how far they can push it.
Trump has appeared to revel (paywall) in the unpredictability of his foreign policy. But just as unpredictability can wrongfoot adversaries, it can leave allies unsure what the US’s priorities are. The result: It’s going to be hard for anyone to know how seriously to take Trump’s commitments, on Article Five or anything else.