the Beacon Journal editorial board

Watch what he does, not what he says. Those are words often expressed to reassure about President Trump. Apply them to his recent meeting with NATO leaders in Brussels, and they do have a salutary effect. For all his cutting remarks about the alliance, the president holds to the sanctions on Russia over its grab in Ukraine. American troops continue moving to bolster Poland and the Baltic states.

Yet when a president speaks, words cannot be pushed aside entirely. They matter, as the unsettled faces of alliance members suggested while they listened to the president lecture them about their “chronic underpayments.” Usually such words are uttered behind closed doors. Still, all would likely have gone better if the president had firmly and clearly endorsed Article 5, the mutual defense clause.

That he did not allows suspicions to fester. Fellow members haven’t forgotten his description of the alliance as “obsolete.” They are puzzled, as many are, about the president’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and Russia. So, even as he promised to “never forsake the friends that stood by our side,” referring to the one time the alliance invoked Article 5, after the Sept. 11 attacks, they had reason for doubts about the president’s thinking.

Will it be one-for-all, all-for-one in the crunch? The president is the first to sit in the Oval Office since the founding of NATO not to offer an explicit endorsement.

Of course, the president has a point about allies failing to cover their share of the financial burden. This isn’t a new issue. Other presidents have said the same, albeit with a different tone and approach. Robert Gates, a defense secretary under President Obama, pressed the case. Those efforts led to a 2014 agreement that calls for members to increase gradually their defense spending, with the goal of reaching 2 percent of their economies by 2024. Their defense spending did rise last year.

At the same time, when the president states, as he did a year ago, that “I don’t want to be taken advantage of,” he misses a larger and defining point. NATO isn’t about the United States “protecting countries that most people in this room have never even heard of” (again, the president’s words). This is an alliance with real successes, from containing the Soviet Union, to navigating the reunification of Germany to preventing worse in the Balkans.

Most of all, these are real partners, reflecting the original American conception. Better for the United States to act jointly. Better for it to have the structure already in hand, allowing for a quicker response. Many members would likely spend less on defense if not for the alliance. They want an American role in Europe. The alliance plays to our advantage as challenge surface.

NATO enhances American influence, or something that defies measurement in mere dollars.