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President Trump likes to bash NATO. He complains that NATO member states get a free ride on America's massive military spending. But NATO's biggest exercises since the Cold War ended just yesterday. And there is a big difference between what President Trump says and what the U.S. military is doing on the ground. NPR's Frank Langfitt has this from Norway.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: NATO was created to keep the peace in Europe after World War II. But President Trump has hinted that the U.S. might not defend certain NATO allies who don't pay their fair share on defense, which he sees as a rip-off. Here he is speaking to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels last summer.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's very unfair to our country. It's very unfair to our taxpayers. And I think that these countries have to step it up - not over a 10-year period. They have to step it up immediately.
LANGFITT: No American president has spoken so bluntly about NATO, which worries some NATO allies who wonder if America will have Europe's back.
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LANGFITT: But over the past couple of weeks, as NATO staged its largest exercises since the Cold War, the military alliance projected an image of unity, with America front and center.
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LANGFITT: To learn more, I flew out to an American ship. This is the deck of the USS Iwo Jima. It's a naval amphibious ship. And it's sitting right now in the middle of a Norwegian fjord surrounded by snowcapped mountains. On board, I spoke with Admiral James Foggo. He's commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa and also heads NATO Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy. He says these exercises are designed to send a message.
ADMIRAL JAMES FOGGO: If you're going to take a risk and you're going to challenge NATO or you're going to cross into the territory of a NATO ally, there's a response that you're going to get. And I can guarantee you that it is not worth the risk.
LANGFITT: NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg also attended the exercises. I asked him about the contrast between Trump's rhetoric and the profile of American forces here.
JENS STOLTENBERG: Actions speak louder than words. And what we see is that the U.S. is increasing its military presence in Europe, and European allies are stepping up. So the fact is that we are doing more together, North America and Europe, than we have done for many, many years.
LANGFITT: After the fall of communism, Russia wasn't seen as much of a threat. But after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, President Obama sent an armored brigade to Europe.
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AINSLEY EARHARDT: Breaking news - overseas American soldiers rolling into Russia's backyard on tanks.
LANGFITT: But instead of cutting funding for Europe's defense, the U.S. government is spending more and more on American forces in the region. Captain Juri Saska, who's chief of the Estonian Navy, feels it. Estonia's a NATO ally in the Baltic region, where the Russian military is increasingly active.
CAPTAIN JURI SASKA: The U.S. was committed and is committed. I would say we have been working more closely the last couple of years than we have done ever before.
LANGFITT: So how to square the seeming disconnect between President Trump's public criticism of NATO and his willingness to spend more to defend Europe from Russia? For one thing, the president generally supports a strong military. And...
TOMAS VALASEK: The president is a lot more pragmatic man than we give him credit for.
LANGFITT: Tomas Valasek was Slovakia's ambassador to NATO and now runs Carnegie Europe, a think tank in Brussels.
VALASEK: You get the sense that at the end of the day, he recognizes this is not an issue that most Americans care about much, so it's not worth really rocking the boat beyond the rhetoric.
LANGFITT: President Trump is adamant that America's NATO partners pay more. But so far, he's still willing to spend a lot of American tax dollars to keep protecting them. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Trondheim, Norway. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.