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As It Turns 70, Is NATO Still Necessary?


Tomorrow marks 70 years since 10 European nations in a continent ravaged by World War II joined with the U.S. and Canada to form history's most enduring military alliance - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the words of the British general who was NATO's first leader, the purpose of the alliance was, quote, "to keep the Soviet Union out. The Americans in and the Germans down." Well, 70 years later, the Soviet Union is long gone. NATO has nearly 30 members and plenty of disputes. As NPR's David Welna reports, President Trump isn't the only one wondering if the alliance is obsolete.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: NATO's 70th anniversary has been a rather subdued affair, but at a joint meeting of Congress today, the Norwegian leading it got a hero's welcome from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


NANCY PELOSI: I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you His Excellency Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


WELNA: Pelosi joined the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, in inviting Stoltenberg to address Congress. He spoke in the same Democratically led House chamber that earlier this year overwhelmingly approved legislation blocking the U.S. from pulling out of NATO. Stoltenberg today called those lawmakers staunch supporters.


JENS STOLTENBERG: America has been the backbone of our alliance. It has been fundamental to European security and for our freedom. We would not have the peaceful and prosperous Europe we see today without the sacrifice and the commitment of the United States. For your enduring support, I thank you today.


WELNA: President Trump gave Stoltenberg a more critical reception yesterday at the White House. Trump has long complained NATO is an obsolete deadbeat.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've worked together on getting some of our allies to pay their fair share. It's called burden sharing. And as you know, when I came, it wasn't so good, and now it's catching up.

WELNA: Today, Stoltenberg agreed with Trump.


STOLTENBERG: NATO allies must spend more on defense. This has been the clear message from President Trump, and this message is having a real impact.


WELNA: Still, some of Trump's Republican allies say he's been too hard on NATO. Michael McCaul is a Texan who is the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

MICHAEL MCCAUL: Traditionally, they've always been there for us. And it's an alliance that we - it's very strong - in our best national security interest to have a strong relationship. So I don't like some of the rhetoric that seems to demean that.

WELNA: But it's not just Trump who's questioning NATO allies' military budgets.

BARRY POSEN: The allies look at us and say, look; the American commitment is ironclad. It's golden. We don't have to worry very much.

WELNA: That's Barry Posen. He directs MIT's security studies program. Posen says Europe relies far too much on the U.S. propping up NATO.

POSEN: Europe faces some security issues, but it's hard to argue that the Europeans aren't numerous enough and rich enough and militarily skilled enough to cope with the threats they face on their own without U.S. assistance.

WELNA: Thirteen nations have joined NATO since the fall of the Soviet Union - many once allied with Moscow. Some, including Poland and Hungary, have veered toward authoritarianism. Alexander Vershbow is a former NATO deputy secretary general.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: It's a challenge for NATO, which doesn't have any mechanisms for whipping these countries back into shape. We don't have any basis for suspending or even ejecting countries that are backsliding on our fundamental values.

WELNA: Still, Vershbow insists NATO remains relevant.

VERSHBOW: As long as we're facing an aggressive Russia and that, I think, means as long as Mr. Putin is in charge and maybe his successor after that, we're going to need NATO for its basic mission of collective defense and deterrence. So I think it has several more decades at a minimum and maybe even another 70 years.

WELNA: And for now at least the Americans are staying in. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.