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Rex Tillerson Meets With NATO Leaders In Attempt To Mend Fences


The Trump administration has been sending some mixed signals to NATO, the U.S.-led security alliance that has largely kept peace in Europe for decades. Earlier this month, it appeared that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would skip a NATO foreign ministers meeting. Under criticism, he is heading to Brussels tomorrow. There, he'll tell most NATO countries they need to spend more on their defense, faster. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Brussels.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: People in Brussels hear different messages from Washington these days. From President Trump, it's been mostly negative. During the campaign, he called NATO obsolete and Brussels, which has suffered terrorist attacks, a hellhole. He even encouraged the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. All of this angers a lot of people in Brussels, including EU boss Jean-Claude Juncker, who threatened today to turn the tables on Trump.


JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: If he goes on like that, I'm going to promote the independence of Ohio and Austin, Texas, Juncker said. After meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this month, President Trump softened his tone, at least towards NATO.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I reiterated to Chancellor Merkel my strong support for NATO, as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defense. Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years, and it is very unfair to the United States.

LANGFITT: NATO countries have underspent on defense in recent years, but they don't know any money. Trump has left it to people like Vice President Mike Pence to play good cop, as Pence did speaking in February in Brussels.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Whatever our differences, our two continents share the same heritage, the same values and, above all, the same purpose - to promote peace and prosperity through freedom, democracy and the rule of law. And to those objectives, we will remain committed.

LANGFITT: Anna Maria Corrazza-Bildt liked what she heard from Pence. She's a member of the European Parliament, where she represents Sweden.

ANNA MARIA CORAZZA-BILDT: It was very welcome until the next tweet.

LANGFITT: And that's the problem. Here in Brussels, people aren't quite certain whom do believe in Washington.

CORAZZA-BILDT: There is an element of unpredictability and uncertainty now in transatlantic relationship that is very much undermining the credibility of it.

LANGFITT: The rhetorical whiplash leaves people in NATO and the European Union with a mix of anxiety and defiance towards a country that has, until recently, always been a steadfast supporter.

CORAZZA-BILDT: People are concerned that it's gloom and doom. At the same time, there's a very strong resolve not to let external factors, be it Putin, Trump or Brexit, to divide us or disunite us.

LANGFITT: The U.S. has the world's largest economy and military. Paul Hofheinz says that means what the U.S. thinks matters, especially among allies in Europe. Hofheinz is president of the Lisbon Council, an independent think tank in Brussels.

PAUL HOFHEINZ: The United States president and the United States, in general, are really important. And there's a lot of people who think that we're frenemies.

LANGFITT: Hofheinz says that's wrong.

HOFHEINZ: The regions have much more in common than dividing them. We - we're the world's largest industrial democracies. And that last word - particularly important - we're democracies - rule of - rule of law. We have a lot of things in common to support and defend.

LANGFITT: President Trump is scheduled to come to Brussels at the end of May for a NATO summit. Hofheinz hopes that as the president gets to know Europe, he'll have a greater appreciation of the value of NATO and the European Union. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR SONG, "OPEN YOUR EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.