RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump heads to Brussels this morning ahead of a NATO summit, which could turn out to be a rather tense affair. Before leaving on the trip, the president tweeted the following: NATO countries must pay more. The United States must pay less. Very unfair - exclamation point.
That's in keeping with past statements from the president that America's allies are not paying their fair share of the money needed to keep the defense alliance going. This morning, European Council President Donald Tusk had this message for President Trump.
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DONALD TUSK: America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don't have that many.
MARTIN: And of course, NATO leaders are skeptical, to say the least, of President Trump's desire to have a closer relationship with Russia's leader Vladimir Putin, whom Trump will meet after that NATO summit. From NATO headquarters in Brussels, NPR's Alice Fordham joins us now.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What's the European view on President Trump's demand that NATO allies boost their defense spending?
FORDHAM: Well, they don't like the tone very much. But the funny thing is that speaking to diplomats and analysts here, a lot of them actually do agree with the substance of his assertions. They say that NATO urgently needs to take threats more seriously and step up both spending and action. NATO has in fact already been going through huge changes since 2014 when it was really battled by Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine, which isn't a member of NATO, but it does cooperate with it. So since then it has done things like deploy several groups of troops in countries near the Russian border. It's identified quite a lot of stuff that it doesn't do very well at the moment. There are - different countries' equipment isn't always compatible. Like, it's not clear if their radios can talk to each other sometimes. And there are concerns that in an emergency it could take weeks for troops and hardware to go over to a frontline because of infrastructure that's been neglected. So, yes, a lot of people do want NATO troops to do more exercises, which does take more money and initiative.
MARTIN: So President Trump acknowledging what everyone seems to agree is the reality. But I still surmise that this doesn't mean everything is going to go swimmingly at this summit?
FORDHAM: It is unlikely that everyone will be exactly on the same page. You're quite right. And beyond the kind of aggressive tone of Trump's statements on NATO, a thing that has really rattled people is that he has allowed trade and economic policy to bleed into security. And we saw that in the recent rally in Montana when he was berating Germany for their trade policies in the same breath as criticizing their low defense spending, or when he cited national security as a rationale for slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum, which affected people here in Europe. Now, to understand a little bit more about why that was unusual, I spoke to an analyst, Roland Freudenstein, from a think tank here, the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies.
ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN: Through the entire post-World War II history, economic relations and security relations were largely compartmentalized in the Atlantic context. So they were independent of each other. And, suddenly, you have a situation where the U.S. president wants to connect the two things. That is a change that Europe has a problem to deal with.
FORDHAM: And Freudenstein also said, ironically, the more insistently the president calls for more to spend defense spending in Europe, the harder it can be for governments to get the backing of their people to do those hikes because Trump decreases his popularity with his tone, and that can make policies that he supports unpopular. Or, as Freudenstein actually put it, countries don't want to look like Trump's poodle.
MARTIN: So I also imagine that NATO allies are trying to figure out how to come to terms with President Trump's increasing close ties with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right? I mean, he's going to meet Putin right after this NATO summit. How is that feeding into this meeting with NATO allies?
FORDHAM: Yeah. It's absolutely true that if Putin and Trump's meeting ends up looking more kind of cozy and enthusiastic than the NATO summit, then that will undermine or shake the kind of projection of unity that is the whole point of NATO.
MARTIN: Right. That's - the defining ethos of the organization was to counterbalance Russia.
FORDHAM: Exactly. Exactly. And Russia is being taken very seriously here as a threat. There was a recent government report into NATO, a British government report, that noted that Russia's done three times as many military exercises as NATO in the last three years. Its submarine activity in the North Atlantic has increased. Probably it has moved more troops closer to Europe than it's necessarily being transparent about. That's something diplomats here say. And, of course, Russia's been militarily active. It's in Syria. It's in Ukraine. And while on the one hand that means it's sinking a lot of resources into fighting, it also means that it's getting better at it. So yes, people here will be watching Trump's meeting with Putin after this summit very closely.
MARTIN: NPR's Alice Fordham reporting from NATO headquarters in Brussels.
FORDHAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.