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Donald Trump Highlights Debate Over NATO's Relevancy


When it comes to foreign policy, presidential candidates Donald Trump says he will shake things up. He would build a wall along the Mexican border. He would take a tougher stance on China. And he would question America's premier military alliance.


DONALD TRUMP: NATO was set up a long time ago - many, many years ago, when things were different.

MCEVERS: Six decades ago, in fact, to counter the Soviet Union. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, Trump is reviving old concerns about NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Donald Trump wonders why the U.S. is paying hundreds of millions of dollars for NATO - twice as much as the next highest member - while other NATO countries are reluctant to increase their budgets or send enough soldiers or trainers into combat zones. He's not alone.


ROBERT GATES: Those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership, be they security guarantees or headquarters billets, but don't want to share the risks and the costs.

LEON PANETTA: In Europe, all but three allies have cut their defense budget in the last few years.

CHUCK HAGEL: America's defense spending is three times our allies' combined defense spending.

BOWMAN: That's Defense Secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel going back years, all frustrated with NATO. It's just that Trump is more unvarnished.


TRUMP: I think NATO may be obsolete

VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: Well, when Donald Trump critiqued it, like everything Donald Trump says, there's an element of truth in it.

BOWMAN: Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Two years ago, he wrote a paper titled, "The End of NATO." He likened the U.S.-NATO relationship to an enabling dad with a petulant teenager.

HANSON: We tend to subsidize the defense of Europe, and then they divert those monies for social programs. It's basically a U.S.-led defense organization.

BOWMAN: In Hanson's view, the alliance should be smaller than the current 28-member alliance that expanded after the end of the Cold War. It now stretches from Canada to Eastern Europe, right to Russia's doorstep.

HANSON: It served its purpose of preserving Europe from an existential threat from the Soviet Union. So it either has to completely evolve, or we're going to have to disband it. I think it's got to get smaller. People are going to have to either contribute to the common defense or get out.

BOWMAN: Jorge Benitez is a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank created in the 1960s to support cooperation between the U.S. and Europe. Benitez pointed to a recent note from Donald Trump.

JORGE BENITEZ: He tweeted that NATO was absolute and that we should transform it.

BOWMAN: Is NATO obsolete?

BENITEZ: No, NATO is not obsolete. NATO is a key, invaluable part of U.S. foreign policy and our national security.

BOWMAN: Benitez agrees that Europe must pay more for its own defense, but he says the alliance gives the Americans access to numerous airbases, like Incirlik in Turkey, where U.S. warplanes attack the Islamic State in Syria. And then, there are allied troops.

BENITEZ: We had over 40,000 troops in Afghanistan that were not by the U.S. They were not Americans. And most of these 40,000 came from our European allies.

BOWMAN: The biggest argument in favor of keeping NATO, says Benitez and others, is a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin.

BENITEZ: Russia has invaded two European neighbors in the last eight years. How many European countries does Russia have to invade before people realize that there's a threat?

BOWMAN: Still, those two countries, Georgia and Ukraine, were not NATO members. And any NATO country attacked can evoke the charter's Article 5, meaning an attack on one country is an attack on all. That article has only been invoked just once, in 2001, when NATO member states in Europe came to the aid of the U.S., right after the September 11 terrorist attacks. For his part, Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover institution thinks NATO should shrink to its original core membership, countries like Great Britain, France and Germany. That's because he wonders if all members will address a Russian attack on a smaller, more recent member.

HANSON: If Putin goes into Estonia, Estonia's going to evoke Article 5. And then, I think, we're going to hear something like we did in 1938 that Czechoslovakia is a far distant place, and who wants to die for an abstraction?

BOWMAN: Czechoslovakia, a country absorbed by Adolf Hitler while the West stood by. But Putin is exactly why NATO has to stick together, says former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.


HILLARY CLINTON: Putin already hopes to divide Europe. If Mr. Trump gets his way, it'll be like Christmas in the Kremlin.

BOWMAN: And like other issues raised by Donald Trump, the debate has only just begun. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.