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Tillerson Talks NATO Spending In Brussels


President Trump has questioned the importance of NATO, the international security alliance created after World War II to counter Soviet ambitions. Trump has told other countries they should contribute more money for NATO because he thinks the U.S. pays too much.

Today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was face to face with the foreign ministers of other NATO countries in Brussels, and to tell us what he said, we are joined by NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is at NATO headquarters. Hello.


MCEVERS: What was Tillerson's message to NATO today?

LANGFITT: Well, the United States has been pressing NATO countries to spend more money on their own defense, and the goal that's been set is at least 2 percent of your GDP on your military. Now, when Secretary Tillerson walked in here this morning, he said he had three priorities, and this is what he said.


REX TILLERSON: First is ensuring that NATO has all of the resources, financial and otherwise, that are necessary for NATO to fulfill its mission.

LANGFITT: And Kelly, that's diplomatic speak for spend more money.

MCEVERS: Right. What did NATO officials have to say about this?

LANGFITT: Well, Jens Stoltenberg - he's the secretary general of NATO - he said that those who are not doing this, the countries that aren't - and most are not spending this much - they're willing to put together plans and raise spending by 2024, which they agreed to earlier. And after the meeting today, Stoltenberg was at a press conference, and here's how he put it.


JENS STOLTENBERG: It's not just something we have to do to please the United States. It is about investing in our own security and the security of Europe because Europe is very close to the turmoil, the violence in North Africa, the Middle East, Iraq, Syria, and we are close to a more assertive Russia.

MCEVERS: So Frank, why is NATO spending such a big deal?

LANGFITT: Well, it's interesting. You know, other presidents have complained about this. Obama complained about it. But during the campaign, Donald Trump said something that was a bit more ominous. He said the countries that didn't pay up - maybe the U.S. might think twice about defending them. This was pretty shocking from NATO countries and potentially undermined the foundation of NATO. It's a defense alliance, which means an attack on one is an attack on all.

Of course this would also be music to the ears of Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. He hates NATO, sees it as a direct threat. And Trump's criticisms were seen at the time that he said them about potentially undermining peace here in Europe.

MCEVERS: Has that criticism from the Trump administration continued?

LANGFITT: No, not as much, and I think that the Trump administration has really moderated its tone. And I think it's worth pointing this out. When Tillerson was here today, he reiterated there's a commitment from the United States to NATO and to Europe, and that has calmed people down in Brussels a bit.

But, you know, the style of Mr. Trump is not the style that they're used to dealing with, and so they're beginning to kind of adjust to - what one person said to me - said, you know, this is the reality we're dealing with now.

MCEVERS: Are all the countries on board with these spending goals and meeting Trump's demands?

LANGFITT: No, not really. You know, the Germans are very interesting. They're resistant, and they point out they're already spending a lot more than they were before. And also, as the largest economy in Europe, if they actually met that 2 percent GDP goal, it would be a huge surge in spending, and military probably wouldn't even be able to absorb it. And also, it would unnerve a lot of the rest of Europe. You know, remember World War I, World War II. A very strong, militant Germany (laughter) didn't go well before in the last century.

And the Germans also say, you know, the United States should consider other things, like the Germans have taken in a million refugees from Syria and the Middle East. That should count for something as well.

Of course this issue and the friction differences with Germany and the United States are not going away. President Trump is going to be coming here in late May. And this again is going to be front and center on the agenda.

MCEVERS: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Brussels, thank you.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Kelly. 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.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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