01:23 - Source: CNN
What's the point of NATO?

Story highlights

Ivo Daalder: Trump's suggestion that America's commitment to NATO is conditional sets him apart from previous presidents

Members of the alliance are hoping for a change in tune during the summit, Daalder says

Editor’s Note: Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US permanent representative to NATO. The opinions expressed are his own.

CNN  — 

Richard Nixon has loomed large over Donald Trump’s administration in recent weeks. But one commonality between the two US Presidents has gone overlooked. With his visit to Brussels, Trump will follow Nixon in using his first trip abroad to address the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Nixon, like Trump, had spoken about NATO on the campaign trail prior to becoming President. In fact, while addressing the North Atlantic Council in Brussels in February 1969, President Nixon repeated a point he had made while running for the White House. “If our ideals of Atlantic interdependence are to mean anything in practice,” he said, “it’s time we began lecturing our European partners less and listening to them more.”

Ivo Daalder

So far, President Trump has taken the opposite approach.

“Obsolete” is the term Trump repeatedly used for NATO on the campaign trail. When pressed on how he arrived at this judgment of the 28-member alliance, then-candidate Trump quickly landed on cost as the main source of his concern. “Our allies are not paying their fair share,” Trump said in April 2016. “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense and if not, the US must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice.”

President Trump is hardly the first US President to call on the European allies to do more – in one form or another, every President since Harry Truman has done so. What is different this time, however, is Trump’s suggestion that America’s commitment to the alliance is conditional.

When asked in an interview with the New York Times last July if NATO members could count on the United States to uphold its Article 5 commitment, Trump shot back, “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”

“And if not?” he was asked.

“Well, I’m not saying if not,” Trump replied. Here and since, Trump cast doubt on whether allies should fully count on the United States to uphold the core article underpinning the Atlantic Alliance.

And the President is not alone in casting doubts. In his first visit to NATO headquarters last February, Defense Secretary James Mattis argued that the United States may “moderate its commitment to this alliance” should allies not boost their spending. Days later, Vice President Mike Pence said that the spending imbalance “erodes the very foundation of our alliance.”

On Thursday, President Trump has an opportunity to set the record straight. His NATO counterparts will no doubt expect him to repeat his insistence that they spend more on defense – and they likely will reassure him of their commitment to do so.

But they will also be listening for something else: the President’s unconditional commitment to the core precept of collective defense, as enshrined in Article 5. While Trump has said that NATO “is no longer obsolete,” he has not yet committed to unconditionally upholding America’s treaty obligations.

Additionally, the allies will want to know whether the US President shares their concern about Russia’s threat, which to most of them is the single biggest threat to their security. So far, Trump has demurred and deflected when pressed on Russia and President Vladimir Putin. This week is an opportunity for the American President to take a firmer stand.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    Allies need reassurance. They want to hear, as President Obama said in Estonia following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that Article 5 “is a commitment that is unbreakable. It is unwavering. It is eternal.”

    Or if he does not want to repeat the words of the 44th President, he might look to those uttered by the 37th President. “Surely one thing we have learned from these difficult years is that no nation has a monopoly on wisdom,” Nixon said in his address to NATO. “We also have learned that no great nation, and no great group of nations, can view the problems of its own community in isolation.”

    These words, echoed in some form by all subsequent Presidents up until Trump, remain unimpeachably true. As Nixon might say were he alive today, reaffirming the US commitment to NATO is an essential step in making America great again.