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NATO Chief Stresses The Need For American Leadership

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In uncertain times, we need strong American leadership. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote those words in a recent op-ed. He's been trying to reassure some of the 28 members of NATO that the United States is still committed to the military alliance. That's been tough following the election of Donald Trump, who once said he'd be OK if NATO broke up altogether.

We asked the NATO secretary general about the future leadership of the U.S. in the alliance.

JENS STOLTENBERG: Strong NATO, which provides strong deterrence, strong defense, is the best way to prevent a conflict. I'm absolutely confident that the United States will continue to provide that leadership because peace and stability in Europe is also important for the security of the United States.

MARTIN: You understand the kind of rhetoric Donald Trump has been using in relationship to NATO. He's been pretty explicit about what he thinks of the alliance. Here's a sample of what he said during the campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We pay so much disproportionately more for NATO. We are getting ripped off by every country in NATO where they pay virtually nothing most of them and we're paying a majority of the cost.

MARTIN: Do you agree with that that the U.S. has been paying more than its fair share and European countries have been getting the benefit of collective defense on the cheap?

STOLTENBERG: The message both from President Obama and from the incoming president, the president-elect Donald Trump, is actually the same. And that is that those NATO allies that spend less than 2 percent of GDP on defense, which is the NATO guideline, they should increase defense spending. But we have, for instance, the U.K., we have Poland, we have Estonia, we have some European allies which meet that guideline, which spend 2 percent of GDP on defense already.

And the others have started to increase, and that's good news.

MARTIN: But Donald Trump is drawing a connection between those payments and NATO's relevancy. He's called the alliance irrelevant. He's called it obsolete. Do you think the NATO partnership is particularly fragile now because of the incoming American president?

STOLTENBERG: President-elect Trump has clearly stated in phone calls with me and other European leaders that he will be committed to NATO, to the security guarantees and to a strong transatlantic bond between North America and Europe. So I'm actually confident...

MARTIN: He made that commitment to you in that phone call?

STOLTENBERG: He stated that very clearly. But this is, of course, important for Europe but it is also important for the United States. The first time we have invoked our collective defense skills was after an attack on 9/11 and hundreds of thousands of European soldiers have served in Afghanistan in the mission that was a direct response to an attack on the United States. This is about that we stand together and we support each other.

MARTIN: NATO will be deploying four battalions to Poland and the Baltic states, which essentially puts troops in Russia's backyard. The U.S. has two divisions in the region to deter Russia. Now you've got an incoming president who has spoken of forging a better relationship with Moscow. How does that complicate your mission?

STOLTENBERG: For us, there is no contradiction between strong defense, a predictable, firm approach to Russia and at the same time, have a dialogue with Russia. Actually, I believe that the only way we can have a dialogue with Russia is that we are strong, that we are united and based on that, that we sit down and talk to Russia.

MARTIN: American leaders have accused the Russian government of meddling in our most recent presidential election. Is that something that you are concerned about?

STOLTENBERG: Any outside interference in political processes or in election campaigns is unacceptable. Therefore, NATO is very focused especially on how we can strengthen our cyber defenses, how we can help NATO allies to defend their different systems and networks. This is now an issue which is, as I say, investigated and followed up by the intelligence community or intelligence services in the United States.

That's important or that takes place because we have to find out what happened and to hold those behind responsible.

MARTIN: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Thank you so much.

STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say the U.S. has two divisions in the region of Poland and the Baltic states. Those are actually brigades.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
We incorrectly say the U.S. has two divisions in the region of Poland and the Baltic states. Those are actually brigades.