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What Trump's Recent Letters To NATO Allies Mean For Upcoming NATO Summit

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. has delivered a warning to NATO. Spend more on defense or else. That message came in letters from President Trump to the leaders of NATO allies, including Germany, Belgium, Norway and Canada. That's according to reports from several news outlets. And this revelation comes just before a NATO summit next week that Trump will attend.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The New York Times, which obtained excerpts, says the letter addressed German Chancellor Angela Merkel reads in part, quote, "there is growing frustration in the United States that some allies have not stepped up as promised." President Trump argues that the U.S. continues to devote more resources to the defense of Europe even as Germany's economy is doing just fine. And he adds, this is no longer sustainable for us.

Well, let me bring in Douglas Lute. He served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2013 until last year. Ambassador Lute, welcome to the program.

DOUGLAS LUTE: Hello, good to be with you.

KELLY: Let me start by asking this. Is the basic accusation reportedly leveled in these letters true, i.e. that other NATO members aren't spending enough on defense and aren't living up to their obligations to the alliance?

LUTE: It is true that NATO European allies need to do more. The pledge made four years ago in 2014 was that over a 10-year period - so by 2024 - allies would aim to be spending 2 percent of their GDP on their defense budgets. Today, four years in, only eight allies make that mark...

KELLY: Eight out of an alliance of 29.

LUTE: ...Of 29. So on that basis, you could say, well, that's not very satisfactory progress. On the other hand, there are eight. Second, all the remainders have made real increases in their defense budgets. And over the last four years, an additional $87 billion have been committed by allies other than the U.S.

KELLY: So you're basically arguing that, OK, 21 out of 29 NATO members aren't yet fulfilling what they agreed to in 2014. However, they're moving in the right direction.

LUTE: That's right. And I think the broader context here is that this comes after roughly two decades of steadily declining defense budgets. That changed fundamentally in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea and essentially tore up the rule book that had governed post-World War II order in Europe.

KELLY: Is it constructive to issue threats, as has been reportedly done in these letters, if the goal is to, A, foster a sense of solidarity at the big summit next week and, B, actually persuade NATO allies that they should be living up to these obligations?

LUTE: Well, I think it can be misconstrued. And it can actually prove to be counterproductive because if allies are being seen as or are perceived as being scolded, that typically does not play well with their domestic political audiences. And therefore, it could actually complicate their efforts to do what we're asking.

KELLY: Last thing to ask you, which is this. Should we read that as a threat of the U.S. threatening to spend less or to otherwise undercut the alliance in some way?

LUTE: I think, again, the key here is that our actions, which are very supportive of NATO, need to be aligned with our rhetoric, with our words. So Americans I think should be reminded that we're not in NATO because it's an altruistic - because it's a generous offering of American support. We're in NATO because it's in our national interests - in fact I would argue our vital national interests - to sustain this alliance and to approach world problems with a ready-made team of 29 democracies rather than approach world problems one by one on our own.

KELLY: Ambassador Lute, thank you.

LUTE: Not at all. I hope that's helpful.

KELLY: Very much so. That's former U.S. ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.