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During his first year in office, President Trump used NATO as a punching bag. He portrayed the members of the American-led security alliance in Europe as deadbeats freeloading on U.S. defense spending. It took until Trump's second trip to Europe last July for him to reaffirm America's commitment to defend fellow members if they come under attack. But what President Trump says and what the U.S. military does on the ground are two different things. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Brussels.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: During his visit here in May, President Trump criticized NATO allies for not meeting the guideline of spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic products on defense.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.
LANGFITT: In fact, a number of NATO countries are spending more these days, and President Trump took credit for it in his national security address last week.
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TRUMP: Because I would not allow member states to be delinquent in the payment while we guarantee their safety and are willing to fight wars for them.
LANGFITT: But even as Trump knocks NATO, Tomas Valasek says the United States continues to deploy tanks and troops and hold drills designed to deter Russia. Valasek served as Slovakia's ambassador to NATO until earlier this year.
TOMAS VALASEK: The amount of money that the United States spends on shoring up the defense of Eastern European states has tripled under Donald Trump. The amount of U.S. personnel that is deployed in Europe keeps going up. So, you know, by most measures U.S. is more committed to NATO than ever.
LANGFITT: But Valasek, who runs Carnegie Europe, a Brussels think tank, says there's still a big question - how will President Trump respond if an ally's attacked?
VALASEK: The honest answer is none of us quite knows. The president is not - you know, his heart is not into alliance. He has a zero-sum view of the world. He believes in no permanent friendships, no permanent allies. You know, that's not the sort of mindset that prepares him well for sort of standing by the side of an ally in case of a crisis.
LANGFITT: NATO ambassadors are encouraged that traditionalists in the Trump administration such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis continue to voice strong support for the transatlantic alliance. But Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist, says Donald Trump's America First approach has created uncertainty with potentially destabilizing implications.
IVAN KRASTEV: United States is not sure that the world that American has built is in America's interest. How dangerous it's going to be? First of all, it's going to be dangerous for Europe.
LANGFITT: That's because since the end of World War II, Europe has depended on the United States, which has by far the world's largest military, to protect it.
KRASTEV: So now many European leaders basically believe they cannot simply rely on the United States' guarantees and that Europe should develop a military power of its own.
LANGFITT: Some observers think a more self-sufficient Europe could be a good thing. But it would also be a long process. In the meantime, Ian Lesser points out, conflict elsewhere could draw in the U.S., leaving Europe vulnerable. Lesser's vice president of the think tank the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
IAN LESSER: A war on the Korean peninsula, a very serious crisis with China in the South China Sea or something like that, which would suddenly present Europeans with a situation in which they would have to almost immediately provide almost entirely for their own defense.
LANGFITT: As China rises and Russia asserts itself, many in Brussels say the United States should be bolstering alliances such as NATO instead of trying to go it alone. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels.
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