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NATO Summit Preview: London Hosts World Leaders


NATO was formed in 1949 to counter Soviet power. Seventy years later, as NATO opens a summit in London, the family is just not getting along. One member, Turkey, has largely gone rogue, fighting its own battle in Syria. President Trump, meanwhile, has criticized the alliance even as he has pressured countries to pay more money into it. The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, is warning that NATO is experiencing, quote, "brain death." Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said maybe Macron should check whether he is brain dead. Right - things could be awkward when Erdogan, Macron, Trump, and company get together this week. Ambassador Douglas Lute served as the U.S. envoy to NATO from 2013 to 2017, appointed to that position by President Barack Obama. And he joins us this morning. Good morning, Ambassador.

DOUGLAS LUTE: Good morning.

GREENE: I just can't get brain death out of my head. I mean, are things that bad at NATO?

LUTE: Well, no. I don't think so. I think President Macron was making a point. But while NATO faces a whole series of very significant challenges, I don't think these challenges are existential. And I don't think NATO approaches anything like brain death.

GREENE: Well, what is the biggest challenge that you see?

LUTE: Frankly, I don't think it has to do with France at all. I think it has to do with the White House. For the first time in the 70 years of NATO's history, we have a president - a U.S. president - who questions the value of NATO, who takes some sort of value in being a figure of disruption, who is unpredictable and who is not reliably committed to this alliance, which has, for 70 years, been a cornerstone to American security. So that absence of reliable U.S. presidential leadership, in my view, is the most serious challenge that NATO faces today.

GREENE: Well, let me just push you on that a little bit because the man who heads NATO, Jens Stoltenberg - the Norwegian politician who is in charge of the alliance - has said that there's more money coming into the alliance today from member countries. That is something that President Trump pushed very hard for. And Stoltenberg says that that has made the alliance stronger. So could you argue that President Trump, while he has criticized, has actually strengthened the alliance?

LUTE: Well, actually, it was in 2014 that the allies agreed to move towards 2% of their GDP committed to defense spending. So that actually happened under President Obama's watch. It's true that President Trump has amplified the message that European allies have to step up and do more. But actually, it's (inaudible) presidents to whom I give credit for increased European defense spending. I think the president who deserves that credit is Vladimir Putin because if it were not for his aggressive actions in Ukraine in 2014, I don't think that the political motivation for European allies to increase spending would have been there. So we may be focused on the wrong president.

GREENE: Well, part of Macron's concern is U.S. leadership. I mean, you've been saying that NATO members can't rely on the United States to defend them anymore, which is an incredibly powerful accusation. Where specifically do you see U.S. leadership lacking?

LUTE: Well, I think it was most prominently displayed when President Trump made his first trip to NATO in - shortly after being inaugurated - in May of 2017. And he stood before a artifact - a large, metal, twisted iron beam - taken from the remains of the north tower in Manhattan after the attacks on 9/11. And the idea here was to commemorate at NATO headquarters this very historic day in NATO history. This would be the only time that NATO declared its mutual defense clause, the sort of famous Article 5 - so an attack on one is considered an attack on all. And NATO allies, on 9/12, the day after 9/11, came to our defense. So there was this memorial that was all set up to be unveiled in May of 2017, and it's even called the Article 5 Memorial.

And the whole purpose of President Trump's trip was to have the new president - newly elected president - recommit to this decades-old pledge that America would be there if Europe needed us and vice versa. But as he stood before this memorial on that day, he refused to say the words Article 5. And instead, he turned to his European counterparts - Angela Merkel and so forth - standing there listening to his remarks and lambasted them for not committing enough to defense. So it began on that day in May of 2017, but he's been quite consistent thereafter, revealing in public comments and at NATO sessions in front of his colleagues that NATO is not worth it. It's not worthwhile for American commitment. And that's very damaging because NATO is an alliance built on American leadership.

GREENE: You really believe that the United States, under President Trump's leadership, would not be there in a moment of true need for a NATO country - for the alliance.

LUTE: So I wouldn't go that far, and it's not necessary to be absolute here. The question is whether there has been doubt imposed on the answer to that question. And I think that certainly, rhetorically, President Trump has imposed doubt.

GREENE: Just in a few seconds, what are you looking for most closely as the summit opens this week?

LUTE: Well, if I could design a summit, it would have just really one outcome or, as they say in policy circles, one deliverable. And the deliverable for the London meetings this week would be a show of unity - a show of solidarity - so that the world sees NATO as coherent, as cohesive and as committed to confronting these challenges it faces. So for example, a key recipient of that message would be Vladimir Putin. So solidarity is the one commitment.

GREENE: Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute - thanks so much for your time this morning.

LUTE: OK. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.