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Former U.S. Amb. To NATO Discusses America's Place In The Alliance


And now we're going to bring in former U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns. He served in that role during the George W. Bush administration. Ambassador Burns, good to speak with you.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So what just happened in Brussels? I mean, what is your takeaway from that two-day summit?

BURNS: Well, what should have happened - this should have been a very positive, successful summit for President Trump because the NATO allies have increased their defense budgets for four consecutive years. They're all in Afghanistan fighting with us. We're containing Putin. Instead, the president picked a fight with Germany publicly. He misrepresented the facts consistently on how the NATO budget works. And then he made these impossible demands on all countries that they not only meet their budget indicators but double them.

I feel this was a missed opportunity by President Trump. He has had an impact on the NATO allies in encouraging the Europeans to spend more on defense. He's right about that. But the way he went about it - the arguments - the first American president in history to ever say that maybe NATO's not worth it; maybe it's not a good deal for the American people - I thought that, you know, NATO depends on American leaders to be calm, stable and reassuring. Donald Trump was not any of these things over the last two days.

KELLY: One of the questions that President Trump got at that closing news conference was - he was asked whether he can pull out of NATO. There had been reports that he was thinking about that, maybe threatening to do that. He did not do that. But he was asked about it, and then he was asked, would you pull out of NATO and could you do it without congressional approval? His response was striking. He said, I think I probably can, but that's not necessary. Truth Squad the first part of that for me, Ambassador Burns. Can an American president just decide unilaterally to pull out of NATO without congressional approval?

BURNS: No, it's a treaty. This is a treaty that was signed in Washington April 1949. The Senate would have to agree to countermand that treaty. The president obviously has tremendous power as the executive. He could do everything possible to downgrade our participation in NATO. He has that right. But the Senate has a voice, and the Senate voted 97 to 2 two nights ago in anticipation that Donald Trump might try to blow up this summit. And the vote...

KELLY: I was going to ask you. What do you think prompted that vote? It didn't come out of nowhere.

BURNS: It didn't. They were looking back at the Quebec summit when the president, you know, blew up that summit. They were anticipating that the president might try to make noise at this summit. They wanted to send a reassuring note to the Europeans that we are fundamentally committed to NATO, and the public opinion polls show the American people support NATO. So the president can't take us out of NATO, and he shouldn't because NATO is our best alliance, our strongest alliance. Our allies are fighting with us all around the world. Why wouldn't we want to have this alliance continue?

KELLY: Does the mere specter of the possibility that Washington, that President Trump might be thinking about that - I mean, you could argue that that plays two ways. On the one hand, maybe the mere floating of that possibility destabilizes the alliance in some way going forward. What do you think of that?

BURNS: You know, I think the problem here is that if the president was making an honest argument based on lots of facts, willing to listen to both sides, then we'd have a policy debate. What you have here is frankly cynicism by the president. I think he's playing to his base. And this is fundamentally, Mary Louise, contrary to our interests because these NATO countries - they're our largest trade partner. They're the largest investor into our economy. They're the leading countries supporting democracy around the world with us, and they're making the budget reforms that we've been asking for. So where is the logical argument that Donald Trump could possibly make that this is a good idea?

KELLY: But the other way that raising the threat of maybe thinking about pulling out of NATO - the other way that could play is it gets peoples' attention. And NATO allies are paying more of their GDP in defense spending. They are stepping up in ways that they weren't a couple of years ago. Does it command attention and therefore say to allies, look; this is what we want; get your act together? Does it achieve some progress?

BURNS: Well, this is what's so interesting about what just happened, Mary Louise. Trump is right that the European allies should pay more for defense. And Trump has had an impact on them. Putin did as well, however, because it was his annexation of Crimea in 2014 that spurred the initial two or three years of budget increases by the Europeans. So they're heading in the right direction. The president could have just said at the beginning of the summit, we've seen tremendous progress; I'm claiming credit for it, Donald Trump of the United States. And I think people would have given him that.

But when he came in and acted so divisively, this has now gotten to be open mistrust by European officials - senior officials - in the American president. So the way it rebounds against us - if we have another 9/11 - God forbid that ever happens to us again - are they going to be with us if they think that the United States has given up on NATO? I was the American ambassador to NATO on 9/11 in Brussels. All those countries came to our aid. You have to show that loyalty to receive that kind of loyalty.

KELLY: Ambassador Burns, thank you.

BURNS: Thank you very much.

KELLY: That is Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO under the George W. Bush administration. He's now a professor at Harvard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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