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As President Trump Criticizes NATO, Germany's Defense Minister Calls For Solidarity


It's been a very tense day in Brussels where leaders from the 29 NATO member countries, including the United States, have gathered for a two-day summit. President Trump, in a familiar refrain, continued to press NATO allies to meet their spending targets on defense.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The United States is paying far too much, and other countries are not paying enough.

CHANG: And the president wasted no time picking a fight at a breakfast meeting this morning. On the menu - a blistering attack on Germany.


TRUMP: Germany is totally controlled by Russia because they were getting from 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline. And you tell me if that's appropriate because I think it's not.

CHANG: German Chancellor Angela Merkel later responded to reporters.



CHANG: She referred to her youth in Soviet-dominated East Germany and said these days the country makes independent decisions. Later, the German chancellor spoke to Trump in a face-to-face meeting that was cordial. We're going to hear now from someone close to Merkel - Germany's defense minister. My colleague Mary Louise Kelly, who's overseas getting reaction to Trump's visit, spoke with her earlier today.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: She is Ursula von der Leyen. She became the defense minister in 2013, so she had a relationship with the Obama White House. She's been working to build one with the Trump White House. Minister von der Leyen, welcome to the program.

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: Hello. Good to talk to you.

KELLY: What do you make of this statement by President Trump, a direct attack on Germany by an American president at a NATO summit?

VON DER LEYEN: Well, we can cope with it because the numbers are plain and simply not correct. Germany is independent where energy supply is concerned because we diversify. But today at the NATO summit, there are more topics than this one on the table. But at the very end - at the very end - we need a strong signal of unity and resolve from this summit.

KELLY: This is quite a way to open the summit, though, with the accusation, again - and I'll quote - "Germany is totally controlled by Russia."

VON DER LEYEN: Which is wrong, but the president is the one who quoted it, so we are curious to hear why he's saying that. There's no substance to that sentence, so therefore what I see is that because all of us in the alliance...

KELLY: I think, if I can just let you respond to the point he was making, that the U.S. is paying to protect Germany and other allies even as Germany is cutting an $11 billion pipeline deal to bring Russian gas across the Baltic Sea.

VON DER LEYEN: This is completely beside the topic of security and paying for it. If we go into numbers, we're talking about raising the defense budget. That is a fair point. Our American friends since President Obama are insisting on Europe doing more, investing more, in the defense budget and also Germany - absolutely right. If we look at the numbers now, we've raised the budget in - up through 2019 already by 30 percent and the projected budget in real terms in 2024 will have a raise of 80 percent in real terms.

KELLY: Why not spend 2 percent of your GDP on defense?

VON DER LEYEN: We are aiming at this 2 percent. We invest heavily in the armed forces right now, which is actually necessary because we came from a period - all European countries - after reunification when the Soviet Union collapsed and Warsaw Pact disappeared where we had 25 long years of budget cuts. Therefore the Wales turnaround was a right one and is a right one, and we are committed to the 2 percent goal. But, of course, if you have a very strong growing GDP, you have an amount of money. If you invest it in defense, it has to be invested usefully. We don't want to burn money or waste money. We want capabilities. We want contributions out of it.

KELLY: In your view, are current tensions between the U.S. and Germany, are they about President Trump? Or is there a deeper, more permanent rift with America going on here?

VON DER LEYEN: I am deeply convinced that the German-American friendship is a strong one. My generation - we've always taken that for granted as a given. Today, we realize - my generation realizes we have to renew this deep feeling of friendship because what is NATO all about? NATO is not only the strongest military alliance in the world. NATO is an alliance that fights for the same values. We are defending democracy. We are defending the rule of law. We are defending human rights. And if you look at that, you know where the opponents are. They're outside NATO. It's Russia. It's China. It's cyberattacks. It's ISIL terror. It is populist movements that undermine democracy. So there are many topics we have to worry about, and therefore we should focus on the essentials.

KELLY: The challenge is trying to square what you're saying - call for unity, call for common, shared goals and mission - with what the president continues to deliver - a series of blistering attacks on the alliance, including right up to today as the NATO summit is opening. Let me pose a question I never imagined I would ask. Can you imagine the U.S. pulling out of NATO?

VON DER LEYEN: No, I cannot. I was just recently in Washington. I've been talking to senators and congressmen and congresswomen. And it was enormously reassuring to listen to them how much they insisted on telling me how precious our friendship is. That we do know from our history that we belong to each other and that the transatlantic friendship is something very precious in this changing world and the changing world order.

KELLY: You're saying you hear a very different message from other U.S. political leaders...

VON DER LEYEN: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...Than you do from President Trump.

VON DER LEYEN: Absolutely.

KELLY: You're speaking very diplomatically, and I know that that's part of your job and you don't want to widen a rift, but I wonder...


KELLY: ...If it is time for a forceful response from NATO. Have you thought about delivering a more forceful response to this onslaught of attacks?

VON DER LEYEN: Well, I think everybody has to decide in what kind of tone he or she is talking. And I prefer this kind of tone (laughter) because my experience is in my personal life that even if you have differences, it makes it easier if there are not too many injuries on both sides to find a bridge and a common path forward. There are so many deep ties to the United States. Of my seven children, two of them are American citizens because I lived for four years in Stanford.

KELLY: Is that right?

VON DER LEYEN: And - yes. And I'm a proud mother of American citizens. And this is a small, tiny story, but it tells a lot about what is going on between our two countries and how dear and precious this transatlantic alliance is. And therefore I'll fight as much as possible that we stick together and we remember and we remind what we are fighting for.

KELLY: Minister von der Leyen, thank you.

VON DER LEYEN: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's Germany's defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, speaking to us from the NATO summit in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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