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Theresa May Pledges To Challenge Trump On Importance Of NATO


The British prime minister, Theresa May, is visiting the U.S. Tomorrow, she'll meet with President Trump at the White House. They will likely agree to increase trade between their countries, but there might be some friction about NATO. Trump sees the alliance as a way for weak nations to freeload off America's military. May told congressional Republicans today American leadership of NATO is vital to the defense of the West. NPR's Frank Langfitt has more from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: During the presidential race, Donald Trump routinely described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a Cold War relic.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think NATO may be obsolete. NATO was set up a long time ago - many, many years ago when things were different. Things are different now. We were a rich nation then.

LANGFITT: That's how he put it on Bloomberg TV.

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TRUMP: So we're the ones always fighting. We're the ones putting up a lot of the money for NATO, disproportionately - a lot.

LANGFITT: And then at last week's inauguration, as the world watched, President Trump said this.

TRUMP: We've defended other nation's borders while refusing to defend our own.

IAN BOND: I think the message that Europeans will hear from that is - we don't care about your security any longer.

LANGFITT: Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank in London. He served for nearly three decades as a British diplomat.

Have NATO countries ever heard a message like this from an American president before?

BOND: Certainly not for as long as far back as I can remember.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands...

LANGFITT: ...And, of course, the United States. The purpose - deter the Soviet Union. The USSR is long gone, but Russia isn't. In fact, under President Vladimir Putin, it's been increasingly aggressive, invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea in 2014. The world has changed, but Bond says NATO remains vitally important.

BOND: There's no question that Russia would not have invaded Ukraine if Ukraine had already been a NATO member and benefiting from NATO's defense guarantee.

LANGFITT: President Trump, though, sees NATO as more of a burden than a benefit, as he explained on Bloomberg last year.


TRUMP: It doesn't really help us. It's helping other countries, and I don't think those other countries appreciate what we're doing.

LANGFITT: In fact, NATO has sacrificed a lot for America.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It was one of the worst ever single instance involving British troops in Afghanistan when a massive roadside bomb exploded under a warrior armored vehicle on patrol in Helmand.

LANGFITT: This is from a report by Britain's Channel 4 about six soldiers who were killed in 2012 while fighting alongside American troops as part of the NATO force there. More than 450 British personnel have died in Afghanistan. The U.K. joined the NATO force that went to war there after the attack on the Twin Towers. Dana Allin thinks President Trump doesn't quite get it. Allin is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank.

DANA ALLIN: He says, for example, that NATO is obsolete because it's not fighting terrorism. It's not clear that he understands that many NATO countries sent troops to Afghanistan to help the United States there after 9-11 and lost lives.

LANGFITT: Earlier this week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis called Michael Fallon, his counterpart here in the U.K., to reassert America's, quote, "unshakeable commitment to NATO." Allin hopes General Mattis rubs off on Trump, whose position is wildly at odds with American military leaders.

ALLIN: We have a Pentagon and a huge military establishment that is committed to the defense, for example, of the Baltic states.

LANGFITT: That's Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania - fellow NATO members which all have borders with Russia. And observers of NATO say some of Trump's criticisms are reasonable.

BEYZA UNAL: To be fair, there are things that he said that was quite right - the defense spending in NATO, which is below 2 percent.

LANGFITT: Beyza Unal is referring to a longtime complaint that most NATO countries don't spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense like they're supposed to. Unal's a research fellow at Chatham House, a policy institute here.

UNAL: Rather, he should have, I think, said that NATO needs transformation, and that is what everyone agrees at the moment.

LANGFITT: If Trump's criticisms lead to reform of NATO, Unal says all the better. That would probably make lots of people happy, including U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.