There often is a disconnect between what U.S. President Donald Trump says and what he actually does. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are just fine, thank you, despite Trump’s Twitter attacks on the F-35 and Air Force One procurements. And the president has toned down his rhetoric on China after warnings from Boeing and others that a trade war with Beijing could put many U.S. aerospace jobs at risk.

But sometimes it is what Trump does not say that can be alarming. We were dismayed when, during a speech to NATO leaders in Brussels last month, the president failed to reaffirm the alliance’s collective-defense clause, which stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Shortly afterward, German Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed that Europe could no longer rely on the U.S. and should prepare to “go it alone.”

NATO AWACS

But fears that the 68-year-old alliance might be cracking up, a prospect that must delight Russian President Vladimir Putin, are overblown. The economic ties and shared values of the U.S. and Europe—democracy, rule of law, human rights—are too strong to be shredded by political bickering. Vice President Mike Pence said as much in a June 5 address to the Atlantic Council, declaring that the U.S. commitment to the 28-member alliance is “unwavering” and that “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

While NATO helps protect Europe from a meddlesome Russia to its east and chaos sown by Islamic extremists to its south, it also benefits the U.S. Bases in Europe serve as forward platforms to deploy American forces, and military alliances enable Washington to project power around the globe. Soldiers from places such as the UK, Denmark and Estonia have served in Afghanistan and sustained casualties in the fights against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

We wholeheartedly agree with Trump that most NATO members need to spend more on defense. Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders has noted that the UK and France were unable to manage limited military operations over Libya “without massive U.S. support.” While European military budgets are rising, and a move toward efficiency with the new EU Defense Fund is encouraging, most NATO members have a long way to go to meet an agreed goal of spending at least 2% of GDP on defense by 2024. Germany’s share stands at just 1.2%, compared to 3.5% for the U.S.

It would help, however, if Trump acknowledged that a strong and unified NATO aligns with U.S. interests. Publicly echoing Pence’s commitment to the alliance would be a good start. As leader of the free world, he must realize words do matter. 

 

Editor's note: The day after this editorial was published, President Trump spoke about Article 5 of the NATO treaty, the section that commits members to mutual defense.  At a White House news conference, he said, "I'm committing the United States to Article 5. . . . Absolutely, I'd be committed to Article 5."