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Former U.S. Ambassador Criticizes Trump's Framing Of How NATO Works


On the campaign trail and since taking office, President Trump has been consistent in his criticism of U.S. allies in NATO, specifically that too many are not paying their fair share in terms of military spending. Here he is last week in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years, and it is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe.

CORNISH: Ivo Daalder is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, and over the weekend, he let loose in a series of tweets at the president saying simply, sorry, Mr. President, that's not how NATO works. He joins us now to talk more. Ivo Daalder, welcome to the program.

IVO DAALDER: My pleasure.

CORNISH: So the idea that nations must pay what they owe - what is it about how the president is framing this that doesn't make sense for you, doesn't work for you?

DAALDER: Well, the way the president talks about it is the idea that somehow Europeans owe the United States money, that we are spending our dollars on defending them and that the Europeans need to pay for that. That's not how NATO works. NATO works by which every country individually decides how much to spend on defense and what to spend it on.

CORNISH: Is your problem just the phrase owe, or is there a bigger idea here that the relationship is transactional that worries you?

DAALDER: I'm more worried about the latter - this idea that somehow we are doing other countries a favor for which we should be paid. The United States is in NATO not as a favor to Europeans but because it is in the vital interest of the United States.

We fought two World Wars and a long Cold War in Europe in order to ensure that this was a continent that was whole, free and at peace. It is whole free and at peace in large part because of the commitment that the United States and all allies have made to the defense of Europe over the past 69 years, and we should continue to do that. So it's this idea of a transaction as opposed to a treaty commitment that I think we should focus on.

CORNISH: We should say for context, the U.S. spends more than 3 percent of its GDP on defense. We're choosing to spend that. And other countries in the NATO alliance spend on average around 1 percent.

Even if you don't agree with the language, do you agree with the president's premise that we are spending more than they are spending and maybe that's not fair to this so-called alliance?

DAALDER: Well, I - two things. First, the United States is not only spending on defense for the defense of Europe. It has global responsibilities. We have a large presence in Asia. We have a large presence in the Middle East. We have global responsibilities, and all of that is part of our defense spending. European countries like Estonia or Latvia or even Germany don't have those same global responsibilities and therefore will be spending less on defense. Although, they do spend a lot on development assistance.

Secondly, of course NATO agreed in 2014 in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea to start spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense and to do so by 2024. A number of countries are now coming to that 2 percent mark. Traditionally there had been five, but new countries - Latvia, Lithuania, Poland - are all coming closer to that 2 percent mark.

I think the president is exactly right to chastise Europeans for not spending enough on defense. It's something that every president has done. Barack Obama called European allies free riders, and it's perfectly valid to point out that Europe needs to pay more on defense.

CORNISH: What do you think is really going to make the difference? Is it anything that a U.S. leader can say, or does it have more to do with the behavior of Russia given that NATO first began as an alliance against the Soviet Union?

DAALDER: I think security is what drives spending on defense. And because the Russian threat in recent years has become so clear, so dramatic, that is why Europeans have now agreed to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense and why they're increasing defense spending.

Russia is helping in that regard. Russia has done more to unify NATO in the last few years than anyone else. Again, for the United States to insist that Europe does its part is the right thing to do. It's what every president has done, and I believe President Trump should continue to do so as well.

CORNISH: Ivo Daalder is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. He's now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAALDER: Happy to be part of it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.