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Presidential Candidates Sharply Divided Over NATO

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the U.S. gets involved overseas, it almost never acts alone. International alliances have been key to every U.S. operation from Afghanistan to the South China Sea. So as part of NPR's project with member stations A Nation Engaged, we're going to look now at one of the most important international alliances, NATO.

In Ukraine, Russia has tested NATO's willingness to tolerate aggression in the neighborhood. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have very different views of what the U.S. relationship with NATO should be. So to explain what each candidate would do and why this is important, we're joined now by Angela Stent of Georgetown University. Thanks for being with us.

ANGELA STENT: Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with just a simple explainer. What is the promise that every NATO country including the United States makes to one another?

STENT: They promise to come to the defense of any member state that is attacked by another country. And the most recent example of that and really the only one where they've ever invoked this provision was when we were attacked on September 11.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the candidates and first Donald Trump who has said he might not stand by the collective defense commitment, though he has said various things. Let's listen first to him speaking on the program this week back in March.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

DONALD TRUMP: NATO is obsolete, and it's extremely expensive to the United States, disproportionately so. And we should readjust NATO.

SHAPIRO: And then more recently he walked back those comments. Here he was in July on the same program.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

TRUMP: I'm all in favor of NATO. I said NATO's obsolete. I was asked a question by one of your competitors, and I said NATO's obsolete because it's not taking care of terror.

SHAPIRO: So Angela Stent, is it clear what Donald Trump's position on NATO is?

STENT: I'm not sure that it is clear. I mean when he says NATO's obsolete and then he says it's because it's not taking care of terror, NATO is a collective defense organization that was essentially founded to keep the peace in Europe. Its members are all European with the United States and Canada, so it's Europe and North America.

So I don't think it is very clear what he's saying. And at another time, he has said the problem is that the Europeans don't contribute enough towards NATO. Now, that is a valid issue that one can discuss.

SHAPIRO: There is a commitment that each NATO member country spends 2 percent...

STENT: Two percent.

SHAPIRO: ...Of GDP on defense, and not many NATO countries actually do that.

STENT: No, only Poland does. Estonia now does, and Great Britain does. But...

SHAPIRO: And the United States.

STENT: And the United States obviously. But beyond that, you have to see what other countries contribute. So for instance, Germany, which doesn't spend 2 percent, on the other hand is now setting up a new brigade for the Baltic states to defend them. So other NATO members contribute in other ways towards NATO. And so to just use the 2 percent as your only measuring rod is probably wrong.

SHAPIRO: So do we ultimately know what a president Donald Trump would do with NATO? For example, would the United States remain a member?

STENT: I think we don't know. NATO countries are very worried, particularly the NATO members that are nearer Russia - Poland, the Baltic states and some of those. They worry about what will happen to the U.S. commitment to NATO should Mr. Trump become president.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about Hillary Clinton's position. Of course as secretary of state, she was very involved in various NATO operations. She has defended the importance of NATO and other alliances. At Stanford University, she said NATO helped the U.S. in Afghanistan after 9/11. And she said from the refugee crisis to the war in Ukraine, it's more important than ever right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: We have made so much progress together toward the goal of a Europe that is free, whole and at peace, and we can't risk letting it fall apart now.

SHAPIRO: So would a President Hillary Clinton stay the course or make changes to NATO?

STENT: Oh, I think Hillary Clinton is in the mainstream (laughter) really of American foreign policy since 1949. She understands the importance of NATO, that it's enhanced important since we have now the war in Ukraine and we have some of our NATO members who certainly feel threatened by it.

So whereas there might been discussions about encouraging some of our allies to spend more on defense, I would expect there would be continuity with every other U.S. president for whom NATO, the most successful military alliance in history, will be the bedrock of U.S. national security policy.

SHAPIRO: You referred to NATO as the most successful military alliance in history. Would you say it has been a unilateral success? To what extent is it working, and to what extent is it not doing what it set out to do?

STENT: Well, the main goal of NATO was collective security and to maintain a Europe now we can say whole and free since the end of the Cold War and, before that, to prevent a Soviet attack. It's done that very well.

Now, you can also ask, should NATO be doing more in terms of combating Islamic State? And there are ongoing discussions about that, but I would still say that, you know, in its main - the fundamental goal of keeping the peace in Europe - it's done very well, and it's still doing well.

SHAPIRO: Angela Stent is director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, and she's author of "The Limits Of Partnership: U.S.-Russian relations In The Twenty-First Century." Thanks very much.

STENT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.