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NATO Secretary General On Trump's Relationship With The Coalition

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The United States is seen as the de facto leader of NATO.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So when NATO foreign ministers get together, you would think the U.S. would have its foreign minister there.

GREENE: But yesterday, the State Department said Secretary Rex Tillerson would miss NATO's meeting next month. They say it's a scheduling thing, but Tillerson does plan to go to Moscow. And those decisions taken together had some wondering what all this means for U.S. foreign policy. President Trump, of course, has been critical of NATO.

MARTIN: Among other things, he insists that many NATO members aren't paying their fair share for defense. Last week, Donald Trump tweeted that Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO.

GREENE: And for that, Trump got an earful from critics who said he does not understand how NATO works. The diplomatic head of NATO, though, was not one of those critics. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he likes Trump's tough talk.

JENS STOLTENBERG: At least his very clear message helps me when I'm traveling around telling allies that they have to increase defense spending but also very much underlining that we are not doing this to please America. This is about something we have decided, 28 allies together. And for Europeans to invest more in European security is also good for Europe.

GREENE: Now, Trump's view of NATO has been all over the place. He has said he is strongly behind it. He has also bashed the alliance, calling it obsolete. And that's where we began yesterday when we sat down in a Washington, D.C., hotel with Secretary General Stoltenberg, who's on a visit to the U.S.

Do some NATO country leaders say to you why are you working with a man, a president, who called the entire alliance obsolete just a short number of months ago?

STOLTENBERG: Well, since he used that phrase, he has then also very clearly stated that he's a strong supporter of NATO. He has called on more defense spending. NATO has started to deliver on that. And the fact that we now see increased U.S. presence, military presence, in Europe for the first time in many, many years. And then the thing that we all understand that in NATO we are 28 democracies. So different political leaders are elected with different views and different opinions on many things.

But for me, that's not a sign of weakness. That's a sign of strength as long as we're able to agree on the most important task that we stand together, that we protect each other. And that's exactly what NATO's done for 70 years. And we should continue to do so because that's the best way to preserve the peace.

GREENE: Secretary of State Tillerson initially said that he is planning to go to Moscow. He is not planning to go to a very important NATO meeting in Brussels. He's going to stay behind because President Trump is meeting with China's leader. Does that send a message that the United States values a relationship with Moscow right now more than a relationship with NATO?

STOLTENBERG: We have a scheduling problem. We will have some time to sit down and look into how we can deal with this scheduling issue.

GREENE: You going to tell him he better get to this meeting?

STOLTENBERG: But maybe we find another date. I mean, there are ways to solve that problem. But we need to sit down and look into how we can address the problem that he is not able to be there in the beginning of April, when we originally had planned to have the meeting.

GREENE: But shouldn't it be automatic? I mean, if the United States is the de facto leader of the NATO alliance, shouldn't it be automatic that the secretary of state would say, of course I'll be there?

STOLTENBERG: It is important for all allies, including for the United States, that all ministers participate in the ministerial meetings. But it has happened before that some ministers have a problem with the exact date. And then we also have to remember that later on in May, President Trump will come to Brussels. There will be a meeting with all the leaders. That will be a strong message of transatlantic unity, U.S. commitment to NATO.

I met for two hours with press - with Secretary Mattis. And he expressed strong support for NATO. So there have been many, many meetings where U.S. leadership has expressed their strong support to NATO. And then we have to find a way to address this scheduling issue.

GREENE: If you're not be able to address this scheduling issue, let's say Rex Tillerson does not attend this meeting. Eliot Engel, who's the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said if Tillerson does not go to this meeting and decides to go to Moscow, it is a grave error that could shake the confidence of allies and signal a change in U.S. foreign policy. I mean, is he overreacting?

STOLTENBERG: I'm absolutely certain that Secretary Tillerson - I've spoken with him on the phone earlier - is strongly committed to NATO. And then we should try to find a way to handle the problems for him to go to Brussels.

GREENE: It sounds like you don't even want to contemplate the idea of holding this meeting without Tillerson there.

STOLTENBERG: Strong NATO is good for Europe. But it's also good for United States. Two world wars and the Cold War have taught us that stability, peace in Europe is also important for the U.S. And we have to remember that the only time NATO has invoked our collective defense clause, Article Five, was after an attack on the United States.

GREENE: You're talking about 9/11?

STOLTENBERG: Yeah. And hundreds of thousands of European soldiers have served in Afghanistan alongside U.S. soldiers. And more than a thousand have paid the ultimate price. So standing together is the best way to preserve peace and stability. And that's important for all of us.

GREENE: Mr. Secretary General, thank you. It's always a pleasure.

STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much.

GREENE: That was NATO's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.