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Former U.S. Ambassador Responds To Trump’s Rhetoric On NATO

Douglas Lute

(NPR) – NPR’s Audie Cornish speaks with Gen. Douglas Lute, who was the U.S. ambassador to NATO until January, about Trump’s visit to NATO, and how his comments square with his past statements about the alliance.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to help us read between the lines of the pageantry and speeches of the day is Ambassador Douglas Lute. He served in both the Bush and Obama administrations and is the former U.S. permanent representative to the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s standing political body. Ambassador, we heard the word taking to task, scold (laughter), lecturing, whatever it was that took place right in front of this new billion-dollar-euro building. What did you make of President Trump’s speech?

DOUGLAS LUTE: Well, I have two key observations. First of all, I think the other 27 NATO allies, the leaders from those countries, expected and hoped for a much more explicit expression or reaffirmation of the unshakeable U.S. commitment to NATO and in particular to Article 5, as your report has already indicated. What they wanted to hear was that the U.S. stands behind Europe no matter what, unconditionally. And they didn’t hear that. It was not that explicit.

That leaves the allies wondering whether what they heard from Vice President Pence and secretaries Mattis and Tillerson only recently over the last several months where they did reaffirm such a sort of bedrock commitment to NATO, whether that’s the U.S. position or the rather more ambivalent position that perhaps they took away from today’s event.

CORNISH: So it’s something that needs to be said. It’s not – I mean some are asking, are people making too much of this, whether he commits formally or says out loud repeatedly that the U.S. is committed to Article 5, which is that pledge that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all?

LUTE: It may seem rather academic to Americans, although frankly that’s ironic because it was only in assistance to America that the pledge has ever been invoked or that the – Article 5 has ever been put into place. And that was immediately after 9/11. But to Europeans and in particular to small European countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union or used to be part of the Warsaw Pact or fresh young democracies, aspiring democracies in Central and Eastern Europe who are now members of the alliance, this is not rhetorical. This is not academic. This is existential.

CORNISH: The president also pushed another theme about counterterrorism and the fight against ISIS. He even tweeted not too long ago, the NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration. Is NATO the right tool for that, right? It’s based on state-to-state action, not stateless terrorism.

LUTE: Well, to some extent it is because terrorism often emanates from nation states. So of course, the iconic example of that is 9/11, where the attack on New York and Washington was planned from the safe haven, al-Qaida safe haven, in Afghanistan. And in fact, NATO has responded there because it invoked Article 5 the day after 9/11. And almost ever since and to this day it remains in Afghanistan alongside U.S. forces and Afghan forces, again denying safe haven and sort of a repeat of 9/11.

But even beyond that and more recently, NATO allies are all contributing. Twenty-eight allies are all contributing to the American-led coalition to counter ISIS in Syria and Iraq. So there is a state-on-state dimension to counterterrorism. The part where NATO is not such a good fit is for domestic terrorism. So the attacks as we saw most recently and tragically in Manchester, but also across Europe – so Berlin, Paris, Nice, Brussels. In fact, the Brussels attack was just a mile from NATO headquarters where the president stood today and just a year ago.

Those attacks and the responsibility for defending those nations against those sorts of attacks fall much more, as they do in the United States, to our police forces, to our intelligence agencies and so forth. And they don’t fall first and foremost to our militaries. So in that way, NATO’s not a perfect fit.

CORNISH: Finally, the issue of contributions. President Trump speaks about it transactionally (ph), in terms of them paying their fair share. But this predates Trump, the issue of these countries having to pay upwards of – having to spend upwards of 2 percent of their GDP on defense. What do you make of him pushing this? Is it having an effect?

LUTE: Well, I think he’s right to push it, first of all, because the alliance did agree in 2014 on a 10-year plan where all 28 allies would move towards 2 percent of their gross domestic product to be committed to defense spending. And so we’re essentially three years into a 10-year program. At the three-year mark there’s been some progress. You can argue that there should be more progress and it should come faster.

But the reality is last year, 23 of the 28 made real increases in their defense spending. In other words, they’re moving towards 2 percent. And beyond that, when you tally up what those real increases totaled, it was a total of $10 billion which came from allies other than the United States last year.

CORNISH: Douglas Lute is senior fellow at the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Thank you for bringing us some context.

LUTE: Thank you.

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