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Trump Administration Officials Reassure Europeans On NATO And Russia


Two other top officials from the Trump administration are overseas this week. Each is delivering a message that breaks with what the president has said. Today, Vice President Pence spoke in Brussels. He said the U.S. supports a strong and unified Europe and stands behind NATO.


MIKE PENCE: The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to this transatlantic alliance.

SHAPIRO: In contrast, President Trump has described the NATO alliance as obsolete, and he's expressed support for Britain's decision to leave the European Union. And yesterday, Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Iraq. There, he broke with President Trump by saying this.


JAMES MATTIS: We're not in Iraq to seize anybody's oil.

SHAPIRO: Last month, President Trump said about Iraq, we should have kept the oil; maybe we'll have another chance. Joining us now is Dr. Jacob Parakilas of the Chatham House think tank in London. Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: Do you think it's fair to describe these statements by the vice president and the defense secretary as contradicting the president, or are these just sort of nuanced differences in position?

PARAKILAS: I think the problem is that it's difficult to pin down exactly what Trump believes about NATO. During the campaign, he said that NATO was obsolete. He said that partners in NATO needed to have paid their bills before the U.S. would actually commit to defending them. He subsequently sounded a slightly more conciliatory note, and apparently in his meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May...

SHAPIRO: British Prime Minister Theresa May...

PARAKILAS: British Prime Minister Theresa May - he indicated that he was a hundred percent committed to the alliance. But crucially, those messages of support for NATO often are filtered via Trump's subordinates and surrogates. And what European leaders will be thinking as they observe this is, to what extent can we trust the United States when the vice president and the president of the United States speak from sort of notably different positions? And that's what I think we're seeing.

SHAPIRO: Well, yeah, I was going to say, how reassuring can it actually be for senior officials within the Trump administration to give a message in Iraq or in Europe that leaders there find helpful when the president himself has not delivered that message in as clear a way?

PARAKILAS: Well, one of the big problems with the U.S. government not being able to deliver a coherent message is that something like NATO relies very much on there being a coherent underlying commitment to a defense obligation. So if the U.S. is seen as wavering at all on its commitment to NATO, then an adversary might see that as a sign that the alliance won't actually swing into action if it's challenged.

That doesn't necessarily invite sort of full-scale invasion, but it does create doubt around the edges of NATO's commitment. What about cyber-attacks? What about hybrid warfare? What about these things that may or may not legally trigger Article 5, the collective defense provision of the NATO charter?

SHAPIRO: And while I know your area of expertise is not Iraq, would the same extend to U.S. activities there where U.S. and Iraqi forces are supposed to be working together to defeat ISIS? And mixed messages about whether the U.S. is going to take Iraqi oil or not don't seem to be very helpful.

PARAKILAS: It's not helpful from a messaging standpoint. The project of taking Iraq's oil is not really feasible in any kind of short- or medium-term. But you would - you can't just sort of take a country's oil as casually as you can abrogate a defense treaty.

SHAPIRO: Are there real-world consequences to this kind of mixed messaging?

PARAKILAS: Yes. Although it's very difficult to tell what those consequences might be. As I said before, the danger with a defense commitment that a country indicates verbally that it's not necessarily entirely committed to is that it creates ambiguity. It also creates the possibility for miscalculation.

If indeed the U.S. position hasn't changed, if Trump and everyone in this administration views the United States as having an inviolable commitment to NATO and an adversary challenges that, assuming that the U.S. doesn't actually have that commitment, that could provoke a bigger confrontation that might have been provoked otherwise.

SHAPIRO: That's Jacob Parakilas speaking with us via Skype from the Chatham House think tank in London. Thanks very much.

PARAKILAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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