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Trump Officials Calm Allies' Worries About U.S. Commitment To Europe


Let's be frank. Some Americans who work in diplomacy or in national security are just not sure what to make of President Trump's approach to Russia. The president has spoken kindly of Russia's Vladimir Putin and talked of various ways to lift U.S. sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine. Then, there's the investigation of his campaign's contacts with Russians.

Leaders in Europe are wondering what to make of this too, although they have had some reassurance, as we're going to hear from our next guest. He has spent much of his life thinking about Russia and maintaining peace in Europe. He's the former NATO commander and retired general, Philip Breedlove, who still travels to meet European officials. When we reached General Breedlove, he'd just returned from Europe.

PHILIP BREEDLOVE: On this last trip, we had been through a period where Secretary Mattis had been to NATO. Of course, other senior leaders, like General Dunford, had made remarks, which I think, in a large way, have calmed - not totally reassured, but calmed - some of the concerns that came from the election. And our new president has made some statements which, even before this trip, had begun to settle some of the concern.

INSKEEP: You mean like saying that...

BREEDLOVE: Clearly...

INSKEEP: ...He is committed to NATO, however critical he might be.

BREEDLOVE: He has been very clear that he's committed to NATO. But he's also been very clear - and I think in a right and proper way - that our allies need to step up to the plate with their investment spending, et cetera. And I think the allies have gotten that message.

INSKEEP: You are touching on an important point, General, because President Trump is not the first president to say NATO needed to spend more on defense. President Obama said that. Other presidents and other top officials have said that. So help us out here. What exactly is it about President Trump that had made Europeans so nervous and made them need so much reassurance?

BREEDLOVE: Well, in the original conversations, some of the words that were used about NATO by the candidate Trump were quite alarming. And frankly, they were concerning to folks like me and others. But what you have seen is the president now has started talking about his way forward with alliances in general and certainly NATO. But those warning shots across the bow early in the campaign and others clearly transmitted an immediacy that had not been transmitted in the past. And I think the result is very positive.

INSKEEP: What have you thought about the president's discussions of Russia and particularly items of conflict, like U.S. sanctions against Russia because of its intervention in Ukraine?

BREEDLOVE: So let me do this. I have managed, across the entire campaign, to remain completely apolitical. So allow me to answer a different question, which is we do, in the future, need to have a conversation with and try to move forward with Russia.

But what we don't need is to do that in a manner that seems to approve or not hold them accountable for some pretty wrong actions that they have taken across the past, starting in '08 with the invasion of Georgia and then in '14, the invasion of Crimea, and then subsequently, the invasion of the Donbass - and frankly, some of the way they have conducted their self in Syria. These are all things that we cannot allow to stand or allow to be affirmed or approved in any way in any deal that we might make in the future.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that European allies were reassured by a series of meetings with U.S. officials in the new administration. Has anything else reassured them in recent weeks as they've watched the U.S. political system?

BREEDLOVE: Well, you used the word were reassured. I would say more reassured. This is a matter of degree. There's - you know, we still have concern out there.

INSKEEP: What have Europeans thought as they've watched the U.S. political system in recent weeks? The president speaks a certain way about Russia, and he gets pushback from Congress. The president imposes a travel ban on some majority Muslim nations, and it's stopped in the courts. What have they thought watching all that?

BREEDLOVE: Well, back during the campaign, when questions were being raised, we reminded our great European partners that in the United States there are three parts of our government - the judiciary, the legislative and the executive - and that the powers are divided on purpose. And that was - that - so that no one branch could run off.

And so what we talked to them about has very much played out, and it's reassuring. They have seen the legislative become very much involved in the process. They have seen the judiciary become very much involved, concretely, in the process. And so what our European allies have seen is that America works.

INSKEEP: General Breedlove, thanks very much.

BREEDLOVE: Well, thank you, Steve. It's been good talking to you.

INSKEEP: That's retired General Philip Breedlove, who was the supreme allied commander in Europe from 2013 to 2016. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.