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NATO commits to focusing on Russia and China

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

NATO leaders in Spain this past week strengthened their commitment to stand up to Russian aggression. But developments on the ground in Ukraine and in the U.S. will likely challenge that unity in the near future. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Madrid.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: There was a lot of cheerleading at the summit here this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: This has been a highly successful and, in many ways, historic NATO summit in which we have once again exceeded expectations.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We've provided Ukraine with nearly $7 billion in security assistance since I took office.

JENS STOLTENBERG: We agreed to invite Finland and Sweden to join our alliance, and we agreed on long-term support for Ukraine.

LANGFITT: But amid the back-patting and reaffirmed commitment to Ukraine, there were continued signs the country remains outgunned. In fact, the summit was bookended by Russian missile strikes in central Ukraine in the Odesa region, which left at least 38 dead. Russia's Black Sea fleet has blocked Ukraine's ports for months, leaving the vast majority of the country's grain with no way out. Vitali Klitschko, the Kyiv mayor, spoke on a side panel at the summit. While grateful for NATO's support, he noted the gap between the commitments by allies when the weapons actually show up.

VITALI KLITSCHKO: It's week, two weeks, three weeks. The weapon is not there. Our soldier told to me, please, Vitali, if you go there, talk to decision-maker. We need the weapons.

LANGFITT: The war in Ukraine has also underscored just how reliant Europe remains on the U.S. for its defense. Alena Kudzko is the director of GLOBSEC, a security think tank in the Slovakia capital of Bratislava.

ALENA KUDZKO: A lot of countries realize that the United States is still an indispensable ally. We wouldn't have been able to defend Europe without the United States.

LANGFITT: But rising inflation, the broader costs of sanctions on Russia and the threat of recession are putting more pressure on allies. And America's political polarization generates uncertainty here in Europe over the United States' long-term commitment to NATO.

KUDZKO: There's a lot of confusion and unclarity, what we should make out of all the developments that are going on in the United States. So for the future, definitely countries are very concerned.

LANGFITT: At a press conference here with President Biden, a reporter cited the Supreme Court's recent reversal of Roe v. Wade and the president's poor poll numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How do you explain this to those people who feel the country is going in the wrong direction, including some of the leaders you've been meeting with this week who think that America is going backward?

BIDEN: They do not think that. You haven't found one person, one world leader to say America is going backwards. America is better positioned to lead the world than we ever have been.

LANGFITT: Many in Europe were deeply worried about America's staying power following the election of President Donald Trump. Trump frequently bashed NATO, saw some allies as freeloaders who relied on America to finance their protection. Biden's reassured Europeans, but they worry about the next president. At the summit, I moderated a panel with two U.S. senators. I read out this audience question.

President Trump had previously discussed withdrawing from NATO. What is your message to the transatlantic community about the U.S. commitment to NATO after the 2024 presidential election?

Senator Thom Tillis, the North Carolina Republican, is co-chair of the Senate NATO Observer Group.

THOM TILLIS: The Congress is solidly behind this historic and transformational alliance - the greatest alliance that's ever existed.

LANGFITT: Tillis's Democratic co-chair, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, agreed and added this.

JEANNE SHAHEEN: We actually have a bill right now in the Senate that would require congressional approval or Senate approval to withdraw from NATO right now.

LANGFITT: In an intensely polarized Washington, it was a rarity - Democrats and Republicans agreeing. There's always been bipartisan support for NATO and, since World War II, for a strong American role in the world. That support endures, an encouraging sign for European allies in an otherwise divided America.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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