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Can Biden's Appreciation Of NATO Turn Back The Clock To Pre-Trump Era?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President-elect Joe Biden has named longtime foreign policy experts to his national security team. One of their key jobs will be to fix relations with some European allies. These are countries that President Trump has insulted and trashed during his administration. NPR's Frank Langfitt is outside London following all of this and joins us. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, David.

GREENE: So how are some of these Cabinet appointments, particularly on the issue of national security, how are European leaders reacting?

LANGFITT: I think very well, and it's not surprising. Certainly, they were very unhappy with the way President Trump treated them. I'll give you a couple of examples. Tony Blinken, he's the designated secretary of state - a big supporter of the trans-Atlantic relationship - he actually was a child - lived as a child in Paris. He can do interviews in French. Jake Sullivan, he's Biden's choice for national security adviser. He played a key role in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal under President Obama. That's the same deal, of course, that President Trump has walked away from. And I think Europeans are expecting certainly a much more civil approach and a much more predictable way of doing business with this new slate at national security.

GREENE: But as much as they might want it, it's not like you can just turn back the clock four years and go back to the way it was before President Trump just like that.

LANGFITT: No, you're exactly right. I mean, the landscape in Europe and globally has changed a lot. And for one thing, I think you're going to see the U.S. wanting Europe to spend a lot more on its security and look after its own neighborhood. I've been talking to a bunch of people, David, about NATO in the last couple of weeks. And I want you to hear their voices because I think they'll explain this quite well. But let's start with the president, President Trump. Remember, he portrayed some NATO nations as deadbeats, basically free riding on the American military for their own protection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're the piggy bank that they like to take from, whether it's military protection, you look at NATO.

LANGFITT: President-elect Biden, on the other hand, he's a longtime fan. Here's how he put it last year at the Munich Security Conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: I strongly support NATO. I believe it's the single most significant military alliance in the history of the world. It's been the basis upon which we've been able to keep peace and stability for the past 70 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium.

LANGFITT: NATO was founded in the ashes of World War II by like-minded democracies to counter the Soviets during the Cold War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They were sworn to stand together against aggression. An attack against one would be an attack against all.

LANGFITT: But just because Biden appreciates NATO doesn't mean the alliance can just turn back the clock to a happier, pre-Trump era. The world and America's military priorities are changing, as Biden pointed out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We're at an inflection point. We're navigating new relationships with a rising China and a declining but increasingly aggressive Russia. China seeks to establish itself as a hegemon and a global power player, and Russia is using every tool at its disposal to sow discord and destabilize the democracies in Europe.

LANGFITT: Helping out on some of America's new priorities is a challenge. NATO was built to defend Europe, not Asia. Tomas Valasek chairs the European Affairs Committee in the Slovak Parliament, and he used to be an ambassador to NATO.

TOMAS VALASEK: When it comes to China, there's a whole different fear. We never planned for projecting force that far out.

LANGFITT: And expanding NATO's reach now is more difficult given the pandemic and the economic damage it's caused. James Foggo is a retired admiral. He commanded U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa and also headed NATO Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy.

JAMES FOGGO: There are going to be bills to pay. There's got to be a trade off there, and there's got to be a balance of ambition and appetite for out-of-area deployments.

LANGFITT: While the costs of the pandemic are immediate, Tomas Valasek says America's focus on China could undermine the NATO alliance over the long term.

VALASEK: There's no doubt that the Europeans will, because of the rise of China, become less central in a way the United States regards the world. The only question is how do we lose as little relevance as possible?

LANGFITT: Theresa Fallon says one solution is for European NATO members to rely less on America and more on themselves to address the region's increasingly complex military challenges. Fallon runs the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies, a Brussels think tank.

THERESA FALLON: The U.S. needs to focus on the Indo-Pacific, and Europe is expected to take care of their neighborhood. And let's face it, their neighborhood is really getting rather difficult with tensions in the Eastern Med, a more assertive Russia.

LANGFITT: Fallon's referring to the standoff between NATO allies Turkey and Greece over energy reserves in disputed waters. Judy Dempsey, with the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe, agrees.

JUDY DEMPSEY: There are a lot of countries who actually would do their best to undermine Europe. We have to wake up to the fact that if we remain at this comfort zone, it could be too late.

GREENE: Frank Langfitt's still with us. And, Frank, I got to ask you, if you're listening to these voices, I mean, what's your takeaway here?

LANGFITT: Well, I think I come back to what Judy Dempsey was saying and what she's saying actually too late maybe for Europe to be able to and the United States to defend its major values - human rights and democracy. And so I think it's very important that the Biden administration gets this right - doesn't have a lot of time - and that Europe probably take on a lot more responsibilities than it has in the past.

GREENE: NPR's Frank Langfitt outside London. Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.