RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump is flying to Brussels today to meet with NATO allies, and it could be a chilly reception. This morning, European Council President Donald Tusk had this message for President Trump. He said as follows, quote, "please respect your allies. After all, you don't have that many" - end quote. Trump has lashed out at NATO countries, saying they're not paying their fair share for collective defense, and he has minimized the threat from Russia, which, of course, NATO was founded to counterbalance. Nicholas Burns joins us now. He's a veteran diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during the George W. Bush administration. Ambassador Burns, thanks for being on the program.
NICHOLAS BURNS: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: President Trump tweeted this morning before getting ready to leave on this trip to Brussels. He said, quote, "the U.S. is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them - not fair to the U.S. taxpayer. On top of that, we lose $151 billion on trade with the European Union." Is he right? Does he have a point?
BURNS: He's certainly right that the Europeans need to spend more on defense. NATO's target is that all allies will spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. Nearly all the allies are under that. Previous presidents and secretaries of state and defense and ambassadors to NATO like me have tried to make this point. I think the president has their attention. But he goes too far, as he usually does in matters like this, because the allies have all increased their defense spending, each one of them - there's 28 allies - since Putin went into Crimea and annexed it in 2014. So the trend lines are very positive, and they've all pledged to be at that 2 percent level by 2024. So I think he can actually claim some credit here rather than just be dismissive of them as he's been in public.
MARTIN: But if he's getting results using this kind of tough rhetoric, what's to say that he shouldn't keep pursuing this line if it's working for him?
BURNS: Well, I think he's right to raise the issue of defense spending, but he's been out with blistering attacks against NATO in front of American audiences. He told an audience in Great Falls, Mont., last week that the United - that American people are shmucks to belong to NATO. He's been describing the European Union, the sister institution of NATO, as a competitor of the United States. And, Rachel, these are the allies who are all in Afghanistan with us. All of them have troops there. They've been in the fight against ISIS with us. They've deployed troops to Poland and Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, just in the last year to contain Putin. And they've replaced us essentially in Bosnia and Kosovo in the peacekeeping missions. So they're doing a lot for us.
And, you know, the American leader needs to lead NATO. Part of leading, of course, is to be a truth-teller and to be tough when you have to but also to be supportive. And in his tweet this morning, the president is taking another shot at NATO, and so the Europeans, I think - well, I know - the European leaders just don't trust him.
MARTIN: How are the Europeans going to react to President Trump's upcoming summit with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, coming right on the heels of this NATO meeting?
BURNS: It's a big week because the president's in NATO in Brussels, and then he goes and meets President Putin at the beginning of - at the end of this week. The Europeans are worried. And here's what they're worried about. There's an existential crisis going on. I've been to four European countries in the last three weeks. The right-wing populists have taken over in - anti-democratic populists - in Hungary and Poland. They're in the government of Italy. They're in the government the Czech Republic. President Trump has been supporting the right-wing anti-democratic populists. And at the same time, he's been taking rhetorical shots, you know, Twitter attacks, against German Chancellor Angela Merkel who's the leader of the continent and obviously a supporter of democracy.
And as I've talked to European leaders at the EU, at NATO and the French government and in Spanish government, they're just - they're frustrated. They're frustrated that he's the first American president who's not standing up for democracy in Europe when it's under attack by these extreme right, anti-democratic populist movements riding on the wave of immigration. And they believe that the president is not friendly towards them - not friendly towards the EU or NATO.
MARTIN: What do they do? I mean, what leverage do they have?
BURNS: Well, you know, they are - the Europeans are giving us substantial military support. That depends upon public support. And if our president isn't positive about NATO as well as being critical when he can, that's not going to be effective leadership.
MARTIN: Do you think NATO is still relevant?
BURNS: There's no question it's relevant. It's the way we defend the United States and Europe from attack from a country like terrorist groups or a country like Russia.
MARTIN: Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO; thanks, Ambassador.
BURNS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.