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As NATO summit kicks off in D.C., Nordic-Baltic states point to Ukraine


Picture a map of NATO members. Then zoom in to the countries closest to Russia in Northern and Eastern Europe - so Finland, Norway, the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Add in nearby Sweden and Denmark plus Iceland, and you have the members of a regional bloc called the Nordic-Baltic Eight, eight small-to-medium-sized countries in the shadow of a much more powerful neighbor, Russia. And in that sense, they will speak as one voice at the NATO Summit this week here in Washington.

This morning I sat down with top diplomats from those eight nations for a discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council. My first question was to the newest members of NATO, Sweden and Finland. Do you feel safer now inside the alliance? Here's how Sweden's foreign minister Tobias Billstrom answered.

TOBIAS BILLSTROM: Indeed we do. And let me say very briefly that Sweden joining NATO was, of course, coming home. This was the end of a process which started in 1994, when we became members of the Partnership for Peace. And when we now became fully fledged members on the 7 of March, that was indeed a crowning achievement.

PASI RAJALA: For us, we have always been accustomed to taking care of our security on our own for a hundred years. So this is a big mind shift for us Finns to understand that we're no longer alone, that we're this wonderful group of allies and the United States and other allies. We felt secure before, but now we're even more secure.

KELLY: Finnish State Secretary Pasi Rajala. The foreign ministers knew they were speaking to Americans, who might not see Russia's war in Ukraine as a top priority. Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, on the other hand, is very closely following what is happening in Eastern Ukraine.

GABRIELIUS LANDSBERGIS: The whole security landscape is being shaped in Kharkiv. Lithuanian security landscape is being shaped in Kharkiv. The way that the war will go on, the way that Ukraine's been able to resist and push back on Russians - it will affect directly on my country's security.

KELLY: Yeah.

LANDSBERGIS: And that's why, if you take the countries who spend the most on their own security, it would be these countries. So this tells you the whole story.

THORDIS KOLBRUN REYKFJORD GYLFADOTTIR: And I think the U.S. also need to recognize that paying the insurance is always a smarter business than not doing so and then end up in a situation that is so much more dramatic on all fronts, more costly both in currency and in lives and in just the rule-based order. And there the interest of the United States really lies.

KELLY: The international rules-based order is a priority, as you heard there, for Iceland's foreign minister, Thordis Kolbrun Reykfjord Gylfadottir. Iceland has a population smaller than any U.S. state and is the only NATO member with no standing army. The U.S., on the other hand, outspends every country in the world on its military by a lot. The Nordic-Baltic nations agree that NATO doesn't work without the U.S. But there was laughter in the room when I asked what they make of American politics from across the Atlantic. Again, here's me questioning the foreign ministers of Sweden and Lithuania.

So as you know, we have political uncertainty and instability here. Our presidential race is in greater flux than anyone might have imagined for July of 2024. To what extent does political uncertainty domestically in the biggest, richest member of NATO influence what the alliance can do in terms of ambitions, in terms of capabilities?

BILLSTROM: First of all, I think that's - we all have full agreement, I think, here that the transatlantic link and the U.S. participation in NATO is, of course, indispensable. That goes without saying. But on top of that, I think that we all take our own responsibility very seriously regardless of the outcome of U.S. elections. And also, just on a side note, there is a tendency sometimes in European media to be very focused on the election outcome for the White House, but we all know that the Congress and the Senate has a lot to say when it comes to foreign security policy. And a president has a lot of power in the U.S., but you are not a Chinese or a Russian president. You have to think about what the Congress thinks about this.

KELLY: Although Congress, of course, has just held up Ukraine aid for many months, to the detriment of Ukraine's ability to fight.

BILLSTROM: Well, again, that's democracy, of course, and we can argue about this. So I'm not going to play down it, but that's democracy as well.

LANDSBERGIS: You know, a couple weeks ago, I had to comment on the upcoming elections in France and how that will affect the future of Europe or future of NATO and all that. Democracies are messy. In some cases, you would like them to be more - you know, more predictable, but they're just that. And if we look back into history - you know, First World War, Second World War - it took a while for allies to come together.

Now when you read any history book about the First or Second World War, you don't read about the messiness of elections and democratic processes. You read about, how did we see the war? Did we come forward, and did we provide the right answer? Or did we not? And at this point, I think that the main thing is that, unfortunately, we're not exactly there where we should be in order to meet the threat that Russians and its allies pose to an alliance. And we still - I think that the last chapter of this historic inflection point is not yet written.

KELLY: What I'm hearing from all of you is there's a need to safeguard assistance to Ukraine. Ukraine needs to win. So I ask the next question with genuine curiosity. Is there a need to Trump-proof NATO? He has suggested, as you know, that he's not going to prioritize assistance to Ukraine. How are you all thinking about that, Minister Rasmussen?

LARS LOKKE RASMUSSEN: Yeah. I wonder whether it's possible to Trump-proof anything. I had the honor, in my former capacity as prime minister, to participate in one of those summits years ago with President Trump, where he, you know, read out the total list of allies and their spending on defense. And he wasn't really satisfied for very good reasons because we made a promise in Wales many years ago to Obama, and we didn't deliver on that.

KELLY: Side note - back in 2014, NATO members made a promise to increase military spending to at least 2% of GDP by this year. And that is what Denmark's foreign minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, is referring to.

RASMUSSEN: The 2% targets. But things have changed now, and two-thirds of the allies now will meet these criterias. I think we should - instead of discussing whether we can Trump-proof things, we should discuss whether we could future-proof things. And that will give us an upper hand towards anyone in the White House in the future.

KELLY: Foreign diplomats from Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, all brought together by the Atlantic Council today as this week's NATO summit kicks off. 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.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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