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How Europe is responding to Trump's comments about NATO and Russia


Former President Trump's comments about NATO and Russia at a campaign rally in South Carolina have sparked outrage across the Atlantic. On Saturday, Trump said he'd encourage Russia to do, quote, "whatever the hell they wanted" to NATO member states, who he says have been delinquent in their defense spending. NPR Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz joins us now to talk about the reaction in Europe. Hey, Rob.


SUMMERS: So we should just start by saying up front here that Trump's comments, in which he summarized a conversation with what he called a big European NATO member, cannot be verified. But regardless, there was quite the reaction in Europe, wasn't there?

SCHMITZ: Yes there was. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was first out of the gate, saying that any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines the entire spirit of NATO and global security, including that of the United States. And he added that it also puts American and European troops at an increased risk. European Council President Charles Michel called Trump's remarks reckless, and he said they only serve Putin's interests. And here's what European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said to reporters today.


JOSEP BORRELL: NATO cannot be a a la carte military alliance, cannot be a military alliance that works depending on the humor of the president of the U.S. on those days. It's not yes, now, yes, tomorrow, no, it depends. Who are you? Now, come on. Let's be serious.

SUMMERS: Let's be serious, we heard him say. That is from a high representative of the EU on Trump's NATO comments. But what about reaction from within Trump's own Republican Party here in the United States?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. GOP lawmakers have mostly fallen under the category of this is Trump being Trump, sort of batting away any notion that his comments should be taken seriously. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said when Trump was president, nobody invaded anybody, and that he was just saying this to get European countries to pay more for their own defense.

But some Republicans were not very happy about it. Former Congresswoman Liz Cheney said no sane president would ever encourage Russia to attack NATO allies. And Nikki Haley, who has lost every GOP primary so far to Trump, said while it's important for NATO allies to pull their weight, there are better ways to get that done than to call on Russia to attack them.

SUMMERS: Let's dig in to that sentiment a little bit more here. I mean, there is frustration here in the U.S. about NATO member states in Europe that are not spending more than 2% of their GDP on defense, which is what NATO asks of all of its members. What countries are we talking about here?

SCHMITZ: Well, the most important one is the one I'm joining you from right now, Germany. This is Europe's biggest economy, and despite that, it still spends less than 2% on its own military. Nearly two years ago, after Russia invaded Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a so-called zeitenwende or historical turning point for Germany when it comes to military spending. And he promised much more funding for Germany's armed forces, including meeting the NATO 2% threshold. It's now been two years, and Germany still has not reached that threshold. Last year, it spent around a percent and a half of its GDP on its military. But Germany vows that it will reach the 2% mark this coming year.

SUMMERS: And, Rob, is it possible that former President Trump's comments, no matter how irresponsible some have said that they were, might actually have the result of motivating European countries to spend more?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, when I talk to politicians here in Germany or in Eastern Europe, everyone asks me these days what the likelihood of another Trump presidency might be. There is a lot of concern about this because many leaders here are genuinely worried about the U.S. commitment to NATO under another Trump presidency. Just today, Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, met with French President Emmanuel Macron, and he'll come to Berlin tomorrow. And this is an effort to strengthen ties and increase military capability. And the possibility of Trump winning in November is motivating many of these talks. So yeah, I think European leaders are watching all of this very closely with a lot of concern.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz. Rob, thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks. 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.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.