STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Days from now, President Trump meets leaders of other NATO allies in Europe. It's a meeting of nations that won World War II, prevailed over Russia in the Cold War and are even now engaged in Afghanistan. In recent decades, Europeans dropped their defense spending. In 2014, President Obama's administration persuaded them to gradually raise defense spending over a decade. Though the decade is not up, President Trump is impatient, and before the summit, sent letters to NATO leaders demanding that they pay up or else. We've got Admiral James Stavridis on the line. He served as supreme allied commander of NATO and is now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. Good morning, Admiral.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: Good morning, Steve. Happy Fourth of July.
INSKEEP: Happy Fourth to you, sir. Is it true that some NATO allies are free riders?
STAVRIDIS: No, it's not. They could raise their defense spending to get to the goal that we've established in the alliance, which is 2 percent of gross domestic product. There are some nations that are not meeting that goal. They all have plans to get to it by 2024. I think that's a reasonable course of action. Steve, we ought to step back and just say we're lucky to be part of this alliance. It is not a freeloader situation. They came and fought with us in Afghanistan and Libya, in the Balkans, in Syria, in piracy. They contribute. And their defense budget is about $300 billion a year. The Europeans have the second-largest defense budget in the world after the United States.
INSKEEP: You're saying $300 billion collectively among many countries, and the United States is spending, I think, something more than twice that. Is it fair to say that they haven't kept up with the latest technology, have not been able to be as effective on the battlefield as they could be?
STAVRIDIS: It varies nation to nation, Steve. So the French, the Germans, the United Kingdom, the Italians all have superb technology that match up with ours. Some of the smaller nations in NATO, as you would expect, do not have that technology. Let's just remember the United States is like 50 states. So the technology of Mississippi may not be quite like the technology of California - same thing in Europe.
INSKEEP: OK. Nothing against Mississippi, of course.
STAVRIDIS: Not at all, love Mississippi.
INSKEEP: Now, let me just ask a bigger question here because President Trump has raised questions about American commitments abroad broadly. And he has reportedly even asked about withdrawing U.S. troops from Europe. There are still tens of thousands of American troops in Germany, have been since World War II. Could that be done? Could that be safely done, a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe?
STAVRIDIS: I think it would be a mistake. And let's put it in context, Steve. At the height of the Cold War, we had 400,000 troops in Europe. Today, we have only 35,000. It's a 95 percent drop. Those troops are stationed there not only to provide deterrence against Russia, but they also operate forward into Afghanistan, the Middle East. Those are forward bases for us. We're lucky to have them. Thirty-five thousand is a reasonable troop presence.
INSKEEP: Let me ask another question now because this summit is coming up, and afterward, President Trump is planning to meet Russia's President Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Goodness knows there is a lot to discuss. But as we approach this, the president has taken Russia's side in the dispute over how much Russia interfered in the U.S. election. He has made remarks suggesting that Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine, is actually part of Russia, although U.S. policy apparently remains the same. We could make a list of remarks and statements and actions of the president. Do you, Admiral, have confidence that the president of the United States is working in the interest of the United States as opposed to in the interest of Russia?
STAVRIDIS: Well, in this particular instance, when we look exactly at the list you have articulated, Steve, I'm worried. And in particular, I'm worried about falling back on Crimea. This was a land grab by Russia, an annexation. We've not seen a sovereign nation carve a chunk out of another sovereign nation with force of arms since the Second World War. So I'd hate to see the president fall off on that. I'd hate to see him fall off on exercises in Europe the way he's fallen off on exercises in South Korea. I think there's a lot to worry about in terms of where the president lands on this. And he needs to have his experts in the room with him and not do this meeting one-on-one with Vladimir Putin. That's a real mistake.
INSKEEP: Isn't there a plan for them to meet one-on-one or a desire for them to get one-on-one anyway?
STAVRIDIS: There very much is, and that ought to concern us because at the end of the day, with only the two presidents in the room, we don't have ground truth. We don't have an absolute articulation of what passes between the two of them. That's not good in international relations. I want to see Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the room with the president along with Sergey Lavrov, his opposite number in the Russian Federation. We need that - they need that kind of support.
INSKEEP: Now, whatever concerns people might have, there are people outside the administration - experts outside the administration - saying these two countries aren't getting along but they do need to meet. There's a lot to discuss. What is one legitimate thing that really needs to be on the table that the two presidents really do need to discuss at this time?
STAVRIDIS: I'll give you three. One is cybersecurity, and that is bigger than election interference. That's Russia and the United States in a shadow war. Got to stop that. We've got to come together on Afghanistan if we're going to solve that. And above all, the two presidents need to talk about avoiding a Cold War - a new Cold War. There's a lot on that table between them.
INSKEEP: OK. Admiral, thanks very much. Always a pleasure talking with you.
STAVRIDIS: Thank you, Steve. Happy Fourth. Be good.
INSKEEP: Enjoy the holiday. Admiral James Stavridis was supreme allied commander of NATO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.