Post Asia Trip, Obama Meets NATO Allies In Portugal

President Obama is off on quick trip to Europe just days after a visit to Asia. The president is in Lisbon, Portugal, where he'll seek to assure America's trans-Atlantic allies that he is not neglecting them.

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One week after he reached out to rising powers in Asia, President Obama meets with some longtime allies. Leaders of the NATO alliance are meeting in Lisbon, Portugal. They are discussing how to handle an immediate problem: The war in Afghanistan. And they're also thinking about their long-term relations.

The alliance is redefining its role in a world where countries beyond Europe and North America have more and more clout.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: Whenever the president goes overseas, the White House hosts a conference call, a day or two in advance, to tell reporters what they should expect on the trip.

In the conference call for this NATO summit, White House spokesman Ben Rhodes began with what might sound like a bit of boilerplate diplomatic-speak.

Mr. BEN RHODES (Spokesman, White House): Our relationship with our European partners is a vital cornerstone of our engagement with the world.

SHAPIRO: Even the tone in his voice suggests that American officials have been recycling statements like that one for decades.

But analysts say, today, President Obama needs to convince European countries that what Rhodes says is true; that the U.S. really does consider Europe a vital partner in the world.

Nicole Bacharan, of the Institute of Political Science in Paris, describes the U.S.-European relationship, right now, as cool.

Professor NICOLE BACHARAN (Historian/Political Science, Institute of Political Science): Cool in the sense of cold. There is no human warmth there. Europe has to fight to be relevant right now. And I think Europeans need to hear that.

SHAPIRO: That's not easy to hear for a group of countries that have been at the top of the pyramid for centuries.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BACHARAN: Yeah, but I think Europeans need to walk down from the pyramid and look at the real world.

SHAPIRO: In the real world today, countries like India and China are more important than ever. While those countries are growing in every way, European governments are cutting their military.

President Obama just finished a 10-day trip through Asia. At the NATO summit, he'll be on the ground less than two days.

Still, there are huge projects in the world that the U.S. unquestionably needs NATO for. At the top of that list, right now, is Afghanistan. With the U.S. planning to start pulling troops out next July, President Obama and other world leaders will spend this weekend trying to clarify the path to an end date of 2014, for America's combat mission there.

The president's schedule includes a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

General Doug Lute is the president's special assistant for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

General DOUG LUTE (Special Assistant to the President, Afghanistan and Pakistan): As a result of the surge in international resources over the last year, it is possible now to begin a responsible transition to Afghan security lead, across the 34 provinces in Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: But that transition may take time. And meanwhile, Afghanistan is a bloody place. Almost a third of the forces in Afghanistan are not American. The U.S. wants to keep allies from pulling out prematurely.

Juan Zarate, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, worked on national security in the Bush White House.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Former Deputy National Security Advisor, White House): This is a high wire act for the administration in some ways, because we've got to certainly signal our resolve, get others on board with us. But the president clearly doesn't want to signal that this is a lasting conflict, for which we're willing to invest blood and treasure.

SHAPIRO: At the summit, NATO will also fundamentally redefine its role in the world today. The organization operates under a strategic concept, basically a mission statement. The last one was written in 1999.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright helped write the principles for NATO'S new strategic concept.

Dr. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT (Former Secretary of State): I think people have really tried to push themselves to realize that this is not a strategic concept for tomorrow or the weekend, but one that is supposed to last a longer time - maybe a decade.

SHAPIRO: NATO was founded on the idea that an attack on one member is an attack on all. But most NATO countries today are not threatened by invading armies. Instead, the danger comes from terrorists or cyber attacks.

Dr. ALBRIGHT: The bottom line is you can say cyber security, but in terms of trying to sort out what that really means is something that needs to push you into the future; energy security, a variety of issues. So I actually think the point was to push the ambassadors, and then the ministers and the heads of state, to think ahead.

SHAPIRO: And there are many other issues on the president's agenda, too. Mr. Obama will meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev this weekend. He also has a meeting with E.U. leaders tomorrow afternoon, to talk about the economy. Because while NATO's military mission needs dramatic updating, the Western world's financial problems can't take a back seat either.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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