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Biden To Reaffirm Support For NATO At Brussels Summit


The last time that NATO leaders got together, it was 2018. Donald Trump was the president of the United States then. And he fought publicly with the allies over defense spending. Now, as the allies meet at NATO headquarters this week, a new president promises a new tone.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In Brussels, I'll make it clear that the United States' commitment to our NATO alliance and Article 5 is rock solid. It's a sacred obligation we have under Article 5.

INSKEEP: Article 5, that's the provision that an attack on one of the NATO countries is considered an attack against all of them. They all come to each other's defense. It was invoked when the United States was attacked after 9/11. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt is going to help us talk through this. Hey there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we also have NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, who's traveling with the president. Hello to you, Franco.


INSKEEP: So we've got Frank and Franco. We can have a Frank discussion here. And, Frank, let's start with you. What do these leaders see as their mission in the world?

LANGFITT: I think that what you're seeing in - particularly in Biden is that after decades of support for NATO, he does want to see some change. And I think that it's important to remember, NATO was created more than seven decades ago to defend Europe against the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, it's constantly had this challenge to evolve. Today, we're looking at, you know, a world of cyberattacks, a far more assertive China. And I think what we're probably going to hear from Biden today is asking NATO to step up and adapt.

INSKEEP: OK. Franco, asking NATO to step up and adapt by doing what?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, he's talked a lot about wanting like-minded countries to provide a better model, you know, than those of autocracies, like China and Russia. You know, and this - I'll just note it. This NATO meeting comes just before he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.


ORDOÑEZ: And that actually could kind of help Biden with these meetings. Here's how Charles Kupchan, a senior adviser in the Obama administration - you know, he explained it to me.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Putin does keep behaving in ways that makes it easy to build a consensus for strength within the NATO alliance.

ORDOÑEZ: So what Biden wants is to build consensus around some changes. He wants to see NATO modernize, to look at other challenges like climate change, you know, things that can also stabilize - destabilize regions and also hacking. Just for example, there's a way to invoke Article 5 so that a NATO member hit by a cyberattack can get more support from allies to defend or recover from it.

INSKEEP: Frank Langfitt, we're talking here about threats that I think people did not envision in the 1940s when NATO was structured as a way to have an alliance to deal with Russian armies in Eastern Europe.


INSKEEP: What are NATO's capabilities today? And how do they compare to these challenges?

LANGFITT: I think it's really - it's tricky and really interesting, Steve. You know, President Biden has been very blunt that he thinks China is America's biggest geopolitical challenge. But, you know, Europe is many thousands of nautical miles away from a place like the South China Sea. And when you look at the NATO nations, the U.S. is far and away the dominant military. The next two largest navies, Britain and France, They're tiny by comparison.


LANGFITT: Britain is actually sending an aircraft carrier with American fighters on board right now out towards the South China Sea. But really, it's largely symbolic, I think. And so where I think NATO can be helpful, from analysts that I talked to in Brussels, is, they say, taking more responsibility for defense in its neighborhood, freeing up the U.S. to focus a bit more on Asia - and as Franco was pointing out, cybersecurity, which NATO has made a priority. And it's a way that it can remain relevant to the U.S. and the other members.

INSKEEP: Well, Franco, what is the plan for Afghanistan, which, we should note, was a NATO conflict? NATO nations have been alongside the United States' troops throughout the last 20 years.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told us reporters yesterday that that is going to be a focus today. They are aiming to finish the drawdown by September 11, you know, the anniversary of the attacks on the U.S. that started this long war. One big issue is, though, how to keep an embassy presence there and how to secure that embassy presence, not to mention to provide support to Afghan security forces and humanitarian aid, especially to women and girls.

INSKEEP: Yeah. You got to ask how you support that embassy. How do you support an international airport in case the people at the embassy ever need to leave? A lot of questions. And I want to note something else, Franco Ordoñez. As you know very well traveling with the president, this is one of a string of meetings he's having. The last was with the G-7 leaders, the leaders of the world's largest economies. And they do include some NATO allies. But it's a different group of people. How did that go for the president?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, for the most part, it went well. There was a lot of warmth on display, especially with French President Emmanuel Macron. They actually had a long embrace while walking on the beach. You know, today, Biden has another one of these big one-on-one meetings while he's at NATO. This time, it's with Turkish President Erdogan. This one could be a little more tricky. You know, there are lingering issues over defense sales. And earlier this year, Biden used the word genocide to describe the mass killings of Armenians by Turks more than a century ago. Erdogan has rejected that, says the characterization - said it would, you know, hurt relations. And, you know, as you know, relations are definitely rocky right now.

INSKEEP: Another thing, Frank Langfitt, how are these world leaders coordinating their responses to the ongoing pandemic?

LANGFITT: Well, one thing they did is they said they were going to donate over the next year 870 million doses. And I think they had to do that because you can't have a bunch of rich nation leaders meeting on a beach, you know, in southwest of England...


LANGFITT: ...And not responding to what's happening with the vaccine. Another thing that they're doing, which is interesting, going back to what Franco's been talking about - and China keeps coming up. Biden was able, I think, to push to get a number of ways for the leaders to address China. One is a global infrastructure program that would help developing countries and compete with China's belt and road initiative. It's worth mentioning that they started that, the Chinese, more than eight years ago. And it's a huge project. They're also criticizing China's human rights abuses, for detaining million - about a million Uighurs in the country's far northwest region in Xinjiang and as well as repression of democracy in Hong Kong. In diplomatic terms, this was fairly pointed given that the last meeting, which was in 2019 - that was when President Trump attended - there was no mention of China at all.

INSKEEP: Well, let's circle back, if we can, at the end to the threat that NATO was founded to deal with, the Soviet Union then, Russia now. We've mentioned that President Biden will meet Russia's President Putin on Wednesday. Franco, what are they going to do?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, details of that Geneva summit are still being worked out. We learned this weekend that there will be two sessions, one larger circle of U.S. and Russian advisers and then a smaller one for the leaders. But what we won't see is Biden and Putin standing together at the end, you know, taking questions from the press, like that famous Helsinki press conference with Trump. Biden says he wants less distractions. And he really wants to focus on the matters of concern.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is traveling with the president. Franco, thanks, as always, for your insights.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And it's always a pleasure to hear from NPR's Frank Langfitt in London, too. Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBORAN TRIO'S "DUENDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.