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World

Many Hope Trump's NATO Criticism Will Lead To A Safer Europe

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump thinks much of the world is taking advantage of the United States. This includes America's many NATO allies, who the president complains don't pay their fair share on defense. But here's a twist, many across Europe agree with Donald Trump and hope his criticisms lead to a safer, stronger Europe. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Presidents have complained about the lack of military funding in Europe for many years.

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GEORGE W. BUSH: At the summit I will would encourage our European partners to increase their defense investments to support both NATO and EU operations.

BARACK OBAMA: I'll be honest, sometimes Europe has been complacent about its own defense.

LANGFITT: And here's the latest version.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are getting ripped off by every country in NATO, where they pay virtually nothing, most of them.

LANGFITT: President Trump's rhetoric may be overheated, but many observers of NATO say he's got a point.

ROLAND FREUDENSTEIN: As much as I disagree with a lot of the other things he says, on this one he's absolutely right.

LANGFITT: Roland Freudenstein is with the Wilfried Martens Centre on European Studies. It's a think tank of the European People's Party. Freudenstein spoke from Brussels.

FREUDENSTEIN: I am absolutely convinced that aggressivity notwithstanding we can actually see something good come out of this.

LANGFITT: NATO has 28 members. All are supposed to spend the equivalent of at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, but only five - the U.S., the United Kingdom, Greece, Estonia and Poland - actually do. Freudenstein says one reason is a false sense of security after the fall of the Soviet Union.

FREUDENSTEIN: With the end of the Cold War and the Eastern enlargement of NATO and the European Union, the idea was that European countries didn't need to defend their territories in the way that they had to before 1989.

LANGFITT: Then came 2014...

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Russian troops spreading out throughout the strategic Crimean peninsula. President Obama speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

LANGFITT: ...When Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine. Some NATO countries are already spending more money including Lithuania and Latvia, which border Russia, and fear Putin. And if Trump spurs more countries to pony up, all the better, but it's going to take time. Belgium, for instance, is way behind. And Freudenstein says a rush to reach the 2 percent goal to placate Trump would cause havoc there.

FREUDENSTEIN: They would have to cut other expenditure. It would probably cause huge social problems, protests, strikes.

LANGFITT: President Trump plans to visit Brussels in late May for a NATO summit. Bruno Lete, who works for the German Marshall Fund, says the pressure will be on. Lete spoke on Skype from Brussels.

BRUNO LETE: At this meeting, Europeans will have to come up with credible arguments why it is important that the United States keeps investing in their security.

LANGFITT: Given Trump's concerns about Islamist extremism, Lete says there's an obvious area where NATO members should try to appeal to him.

LETE: Counterterrorism is a very promising area where Europe and the United States can work together simply because we do have the same interests there. It is at this meeting that we need to overcome our differences. We need to put the past behind and to build trust.

LANGFITT: Because, Lete says, with a resurgent Russia, it's more important than it's been in years for America and its NATO partners to remain united. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF E-VAX'S "NEON AND ALUMINUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.