Why is Trump criticizing key allies to U.S. security?

European officials are digesting new comments by President-elect Trump, who told two newspapers that NATO is obsolete, suggested the U.S. might drop sanctions on Russia and said he is indifferent about the future of the EU. John Yang gets reaction from Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Read the Full Transcript


    Beyond his social media statements over the weekend, the president-elect had much more to say in an interview with two European publications. He opined on the usefulness of NATO and the European Union, on the stability of Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel, and on Brexit.

    John Yang begins our coverage.


    As hundreds of U.S. Marines touched down today in Norway, a move designed to reassure nations nervous about Russia, European officials were digesting president-elect Trump's latest comments about NATO.

    He told The Times of London and the German newspaper Bild that: "It's obsolete because it wasn't taking care of terror. And the other thing is, the countries aren't paying their fair share, which I think is very unfair to the United States."

    In fact, the only time the alliance's mutual defense provision was invoked was to help the United States after the 9/11 terror attacks. Hundreds of NATO troops died alongside Americans in Afghanistan.

    Mr. Trump had made similar statements during the campaign, but this latest barb came just days after his nominee for defense secretary offered a starkly different opinion.

    GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET.), Secretary of Defense-Designate: NATO, from my perspective, having served once as the NATO supreme allied commander, is the most successful military alliance probably in modern world history, maybe ever.


    The Kremlin agreed with the Trump assessment and said NATO's main goal is confrontation. But it said little about the president-elect's suggestion that he might drop U.S. sanctions on Russia in exchange for nuclear arms reductions.

    Mr. Trump also said he's indifferent about the European Union's future in the wake of Britain's vote to leave it: "Personally, I don't think it matters much for the United States. Look, the E.U. was formed, partially, to beat the United States on trade, so I don't really care whether it's separate or together."

    The president-elect had special criticism for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He said she had made a catastrophic mistake in taking in thousands of migrants and refugees. And he said he will start off trusting Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin equally, but said that may not last.

    The chancellor answered today in Berlin:

  • ANGELA MERKEL, Chancellor, Germany (through interpreter):

    I think, for us Europeans, we have our fate in our own hands. The president-elect made his points again. Once he is in office, which he is not at the moment, we will, of course, work together with the American government. Then we will see what sort of cooperation we can achieve.


    Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry went further in a CNN interview.

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Well, I thought, frankly, it was inappropriate for a president-elect of the United States to be stepping into the politics of other countries in a quite direct manner.


    The secretary said, ultimately, it's for Mr. Trump to explain himself, because, as of Friday, he's responsible for that relationship.

    We get reaction to Mr. Trump's comments from two people with extensive experience managing U.S.-European relations.

    Nicholas Burns was a career diplomat. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration. He's now at Harvard University. And he joins us tonight from London. Here in studio, Heather Conley, she was deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs during the George W. Bush administration. She's now director and senior fellow of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

    Thank you both for joining us.

    Mr. Burns, let me start with you, former ambassador to NATO.

    Donald Trump says that NATO is obsolete because it doesn't take on terror, unfair to the United States. What's your take?

    NICHOLAS BURNS, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: He's completely wrong about that.

    I was ambassador to NATO for President George W. Bush actually on 9/11. And on 9/11, when we were attacked from al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the NATO allies came to us in Brussels. They said they wanted to invoke Article V of the NATO treaty, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.

    They came to our defense big time. They all went into Afghanistan. They bled, died and were wounded for us in Afghanistan. They're all still fighting in Afghanistan. We fought the terrorism of al-Qaida and the terrorism of the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

    So, Trump is — Donald Trump is exactly wrong. And I can tell you, having been in London today, people here are just flabbergasted by this interview in The Times in London.

    To basically — to denigrate NATO as obsolete, to root openly for the weakening of the European Union, to castigate Angela Merkel, our strongest friend in Europe, we have not seen an American president be so openly critical of our allies in 70 years. And yet he doesn't criticize our adversary Vladimir Putin.

    It is mystifying. People here are uncertain about American leadership. It's a very poor and unwise way to start his term in office.


    Heather Conley, the larger point, your take on the remarks, but also specifically on NATO. He says it's unfair because the other countries aren't paying their fair share, that the financial burden falls on the United States.

    HEATHER CONLEY, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, it's certainly been a bipartisan comment to get European countries to increase their defense spending.

    And that's something that they — NATO countries pledged two-and-a-half years ago to substantially increase their defense spending, and they're doing that.

    The challenge is, the United States is safer because NATO exists. When we join with our allies to — whether it's defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, supporting those in Iraq to beat back ISIS, to protect NATO when Russia invades a neighboring country, this — it makes America stronger.

    It's a part of U.S. national security. So, when you're criticizing NATO and saying it's obsolete, you're actually degrading U.S. national security. And that is what has us all so confused about Mr. Trump's comments.

    It's OK to say Europe is not spending enough and we need to increase that spending. But we get an enormous benefit out of the NATO alliance.


    Let's drill down on the some of the other things that he said in the interview.

    Ambassador Burns, what about this idea of lifting sanctions on Russia which were put in place for their annexation of Crimea in exchange for an agreement on arms reduction?


    It's hard to see the logic in this agreement. Everyone, of course, wants to see nuclear stability between the United States and Russia. It's the highest priority.

    But we can achieve nuclear arms stability and reduction based on the interest of both sides. For Donald Trump to say, I will do this, I will reduce nuclear weapons with Russia and give them sanctions relief, Russia crossed the brightest red line in international law by invading and annexing Crimea and then dividing Eastern Ukraine in the Donbass, and, of course, has been threatening our allies the Baltic states.

    Those sanction regimes are in place by Europeans, Canadians and Americans as leverage against Russia. And the sanctions cannot be lifted until Russia removes its forces from Eastern Ukraine.

    If it doesn't do that, and if we give away on sanctions, Russia gets away with grand larceny. The European leadership will be furious with the United States, Angela Merkel especially. She negotiated these sanctions with President Putin directly.

    And so I think it's very unwise. It gives away American influence. It would be a weak policy by the United States, not a strong policy.


    Heather Conley, is this sort of essentially offering to accept this annexation of Crimea in exchange for something else? Is this sort of like a business deal?


    Well, exactly.

    We're talking about two separate things. The sanctions relate to the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine. A nuclear arms agreement — let's step back a minute. Russia has been in violation of the IMF Treaty many years. Now, steps have not been taken to address those violations.

    We have seen where — announcements of moving of Russian tactical weapons near NATO borders, near now U.S. troops. We do need to address this. But we're mixing apples and oranges here.

    Again, nuclear stability, I agree, is very important, but, right now — and I thought president-elect Trump had mentioned that he wants to strengthen America's nuclear arsenal. Perhaps I misunderstood. So, are we reducing? Are we increasing?

    But we have to watch very carefully Russia's military modernization. They are actually increasing their strategic nuclear deterrent. They may be at a point where they're accelerating that program. We have to be extremely mindful. This is protecting U.S. national security.

    And Russia, as Gen. Mattis noted, really is a near-term threat, could be an existential threat. So let's keep our eye on the prize here, and not start conflating two very different things.


    Nicholas Burns, talked about this equating Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. What's your take on that?


    I — to be honest with you, that was the most — I'm sorry, Nic.




    Go ahead, Mr. Ambassador.


    Sorry, just the time delay.

    I just wanted to say, Angela Merkel is our strongest ally. Vladimir Putin is our greatest adversary. To equate them is an insult to Angela Merkel.

    And Europe is our largest trade partner, largest investor into our economy and largest ally. Europe really matters. Donald Trump says we're indifferent to the future of the E.U.? The E.U. was formed to put aside war between France and Germany and unite Europe in peace. It's done that. We should support it.


    We have got less than a minute left.

    Mr. Ambassador, let's start with you.

    What — overall, what does this say about what's ahead for U.S.-European relations?


    A very rocky start for the administration of Donald Trump.

    I have to believe that Rex Tillerson, the new secretary of state incoming, Jim Mattis, the new secretary of defense, they understand the value of NATO. They understand that we're the leader of the West.

    And I hope very much that Donald Trump will agree with them and shift these positions.


    But, Heather Conley, who's speaking for the administration?


    That's the question. And we're going to need to get some clarification on that.

    Just to underscore it, European solidarity, unity — it is an incredibly important trade and investment partner to the U.S. We cannot want Europe to be divided, to be — to fall apart. They're too important to U.S. national security.

    Seventy years ago, another great secretary of state and defense, George C. Marshall, made his Marshall Plan. This was a massive investment in Europe. The United States has invested in Europe. We are the beneficiaries of it. We cannot let this go away. It's too important.


    Heather Conley, Nicholas Burns, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment