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Threats and vulnerabilities cast a shadow on NATO's 75th anniversary

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The death knell for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, has been rung a time or two, most notably by former President Donald Trump, who said the security alliance is dead and obsolete. But NATO turned 75 on Thursday at a time of great tension between its members and Russia. Ambassador Daniel Speckhard is the former U.S. ambassador to Greece and Belarus as well as being the former director of policy at NATO. Welcome to the program.

DANIEL SPECKHARD: It's wonderful to be with you, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So how has the role of NATO changed since it was formed to protect Europe and the West against what was then the Soviet Union?

SPECKHARD: Well, I mean, in reality, yes, protecting against the Soviet Union, but it was also designed to kind of protect against further wars in Europe in the sense that if you bring together people into a group where you can negotiate. You can talk out your differences. You can avoid disputes that turn into conflicts. So the real beauty of the alliance has been as it's grown, the countries that are in the alliance don't go to war, right? And that was not the history of Europe in the last century.

RASCOE: Prior to Russia's war with Ukraine, do you think the importance of NATO had been diminished?

SPECKHARD: I think there was a period, especially after the end of the Cold War when I was serving there - in particular, there was a - wherefore NATO? What are they - what's their purpose now that the world has entered a new era of peace? But that's back when everybody thought Russia might turn into a democracy. There was no Cold War superpower struggle. So that kind of now no longer is true, so the role of NATO becomes more important.

And the other new thing that's happened in NATO is the addition of new members. So it's gotten much more comprehensive. There's 32 members now, and they're covering most of Europe, and that, as a result, also makes it a much more effective alliance.

RASCOE: Even with the war with Ukraine, there's a thought that if it goes on long enough - that there will be a lack of unity among the members of NATO and that, you know, Russia may be able to just kind of wait them out.

SPECKHARD: Yeah, I think that's a good point. And the weakness of NATO is that it's based on a collective of democracies. And any of us who've lived in a democracy know the imperfect nature of that form of governance, but it's still the best form out there. So when you're trying to do something collectively, all it takes is one or two countries that have a different view, a different path that they want to go down, and things get slowed down. And this has been always the tension with the United States, and it is right now, even in the discussions that's going on, whether NATO should take over more responsibility for coordinating assistance to Ukraine or whether that should be left by a coordination with U.S. in the lead.

RASCOE: And what about some of the countries? Yes, they are democracies in NATO, but there are some that are adopting a bit of an authoritarian streak. Is that a vulnerability within NATO? - some of the members.

SPECKHARD: It is. It is a vulnerability. We can't hide that. And in fact, Russians and others play on that, right? Again, at the end of the day, No. 1 about this collective alliance is let's not have a war within the alliance, right? So those 32 countries stabilizing that center of Europe is critical. And having those countries in that are still struggling a little bit, I think, has proven to be worthwhile.

RASCOE: Can you talk about how NATO European member states are planning a package to help support Ukraine? - maybe a $100 billion package.

SPECKHARD: Yeah. Well, I think the important thing is that it's more than economic. You know, we had this kind of in the past, a little bit of a separation - that the United States would be providing more of the defense support, and the European Union would provide more of the economic support. Over time, it became clear that everybody was going to have to support the security side and the military side as well. And so I think this kind of package is very important to continue to signal that NATO is in it for the long term. The idea here is that everybody's all in equally, one, and two, it kind of allows them to make sure that U.S. politics can't interfere with kind of the good coordination of that support and assistance.

Most important, though, Ayesha, is that the Russians get the signal that if they just wait another year, it's not going to be enough - right? - that the NATO is in this for the long term and that they can't wait us out, that Ukraine's choice, its sovereign choice of choosing its own path of democracy and freedom from autocratic rule, is one that we will respect and support in the context of what the European values are that we think are important.

RASCOE: Former President Donald Trump felt that European NATO members should pay more, and he said that if he were president again - that Russia could do, quote, "whatever the hell they want" to countries that he thinks don't pay enough. So are you worried about NATO and European security if Trump gets back into the White House?

SPECKHARD: Well, I think that's why I'm glad NATO exists. Obviously, the domestic politics in the United States are very complicated right now, very volatile. But what I hope NATO will do is just keep its head down, do its work, and stay focused.

RASCOE: If the U.S. were to leave NATO, is that the end of the alliance if that were to happen?

SPECKHARD: I don't think so because I think a lot of this is domestic posturing and for political purposes, and the value of NATO stands by itself and will continue to stand to its 100th birthday.

RASCOE: That's Ambassador Daniel Speckhard, the former director of policy planning for NATO. Thanks so much for speaking with us today.

SPECKHARD: It's been a great pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.