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Casting Doubt On U.S. Commitment To Mutual Defense, Donald Trump Unsettles NATO Allies


Some of the news at the Republican convention set off an alarm among U.S. allies across Europe. Donald Trump in an interview with The New York Times cast doubt on whether the U.S. would automatically defend a NATO ally if they were attacked. That approach would reverse nearly 70 years of U.S. military policy at a time when Russia is increasingly aggressive. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: In the New York Times interview, Trump suggested a pay-for-play scheme. He said the U.S. should defend a NATO ally from an attack only if Washington was reasonably reimbursed for the cost of protecting them. The approach flies in the face of the underlying agreement of NATO - that of mutual defense, that an attack on one NATO member would be considered an attack on all members. Secretary of State John Kerry quickly sought to reassure NATO members and other allies that the current administration would live up to its commitments.


JOHN KERRY: This administration, like every single administration, Republican and Democrat alike, since 1949, remains fully committed to the NATO's alliance and to our security commitments.

NORTHAM: Trump, in his interview, expressed exasperation that many NATO members are not meeting their goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on their militaries and instead are relying on the U.S. His case was taken up by his running mate, Mike Pence. Pence told "PBS NewsHour" it's time NATO members start to pay their fair share.


MIKE PENCE: We provide an enormous amount of resources, particularly with regard to military resources, to countries all over the world. And in many cases, those countries are not compensating the American taxpayer for the commitment that we're making to their security.

DEREK CHOLLET: U.S. commitment to NATO and our commitments our European partners is not an act of charity. It's not a gift that we give to our European partners. It's actually part of our security, as well, and their security is our security.

NORTHAM: Derek Chollet is a senior advisor with The German Marshall Fund and a former assistant secretary of defense. He says NATO members, friends and colleagues in Europe are deeply alarmed about Trump's comments and worry about U.S. commitments to the alliance.

CHOLLET: Trump's rhetoric is undermining America's credibility, undermining America's leadership and strength in Europe, even without him being president. The rhetoric itself is very damaging. Obviously, if you were to try to implement any of that rhetoric as president, it would be catastrophic for America's interests.

NORTHAM: Trump's comments are a particular worry for the Baltic states - Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia - former Soviet republics right along Russia's border. Officials there are issuing statements ranging from alarm to anger. Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia's foreign minister, declined to comment directly on Trump, but said NATO would not survive without the alliance maintaining an iron clad agreement about mutual defense.

EDGARS RINKEVICS: Because if you do not honor commitment in one case, nobody's going to believe that anyone is going to honor commitment in other case.

NORTHAM: Rinkevics says for now, he has no doubt the U.S. will live up to its commitments if Russia were to attack Latvia or another NATO country.

RINKEVICS: And we do hope that any future administration, when it comes to power, will continue this policy of NATO alliance.

NORTHAM: And, he says, not leave NATO members with any doubt about the United States commitment. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.