Senate Observer Group reflects on progress at NATO meeting this week: NPR


One of the challenges for world leaders gathered here in Madrid for the NATO summit this week has been how to keep the public in their home countries focused on what is happening in Ukraine. For Europeans, especially those closest to the war, the fear and the fallout are easy to see – an increase in the number of refugees, higher energy prices and disruptions or increases in the prices of foodstuffs. But across the Atlantic, the conflict may seem distant, aside from the impact on US wallets.

THOM TILLIS: I always use the example – in North Carolina we have hurricanes. I’m going to the coast. I see the devastation. I know it will take them years to recover. But the public, two or three weeks after a hurricane, begins to think that everything is back to normal. And we have to recognize that until Russia comes out of Ukraine, nothing will be normal in Europe, and that is a threat to the world.

MARTIN: It’s Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who leads the bipartisan Senate NATO Observer Group, along with Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. I sat down with both of them here in Madrid to hear their thoughts on what they considered a very productive summit. And I asked them about the challenge of helping Americans understand what’s at stake.

For people who don’t follow this kind of work closely, could you just explain why it was important for you two to be here? Senator Sheehan, do you want to start?

JEANNE SHAHEEN: Senator Tillis and I co-lead something called the Senate NATO Observer Group. And the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate have asked us to lead a delegation to this NATO summit, to show our Senate support for NATO and to show our support for Sweden and Finland joining.

MARTIN: Senator Tillis, what do you consider to be the main achievements of this summit?

TILLUS: Well, I think getting Sweden and Finland guest status next week after protocol signs was clearly one of the big ones. But having four Asia-Pacific countries here, having NATO recognizing in its strategic concept that China is an emerging threat, are all very, very important outcomes of the summit, including an investment vehicle that goes to against the Chinese Belt and Road initiative. Often summits always have the problem of dividing countries in different directions. This was not the case at this summit.

MARTIN: And what about the perspective, Senator Tillis, of your delegation, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats? It’s not something we’ve seen in recent years, to be frank.

TILLUS: But to be fair, in international politics, it happens more often than not. Bipartite delegations to NATO countries or any European country are very welcome. They want to know that the United States is looking at the complexities, the challenges that it faces. And it’s also important to show it’s bipartisan, because they know the only way to get things done in the Senate is through bipartisan consensus.

MARTIN: Well, it’s also the case, though, that President Trump has shown some contempt for some of these international institutions. Would you say that view is – I mean, I’m thinking of the fact that one of the Senate candidates, a Republican candidate, said a few months ago that, you know, nobody cares about the Ukraine – something to that effect. So I think – are you saying here that’s not the prevailing opinion within the Republican Party?

TILLUS: That’s not the mainstream opinion. We work closely together. If you think about it, we are both members of the Senate Armed Forces. There was never a discussion, never even a suggestion from a Republican member, that NATO was somehow irrelevant or outdated. We know this is the most important alliance that has ever existed, and we are all committed to it.

MARTIN: What did you take away from your discussions here? I mean, was there a general theme, something that you feel like you learned from being here that you wouldn’t have understood if you hadn’t come in person?

SHAHEEN: Well, the thing that I felt was most important to me was hearing from every person we met talking about the important leadership role that the United States is playing and how important that has been here at the summit. of NATO, how important it was to rally allies to help Ukraine oppose Russia’s war and how important it is as we think about our security in the future .

MARTIN: Well, to that end, Senator Tillis, we’ve heard loud and clear from frontline countries – like places like Estonia, Latvia, the Baltics – that they’ve been very concerned for years, and they are happy that the rest of the world is paying attention. But people who aren’t frontline countries, who aren’t experiencing this directly, primarily experience war in terms of, you know, higher energy costs, you know, food supply disruptions. How do you maintain that sense of urgency and concern – let’s even say in the United States, where people mostly experience the conflict as a news story, sometimes not even dominating the news, and in terms of the nature of the disruptions of their daily lives – like, what are you doing?

TILLUS: It’s a real risk to keep the audience focused – I think less in Europe because Ukraine is in their backyard. In the United States, you must continue to work there. We’re going to have to make sure people understand that it doesn’t stop with Ukraine and that it’s a real threat, not just to the nations of Europe, but to the world.

MARTIN: Well, but given that high gas prices are a political issue, as well as kind of an economic issue, it’s a gut issue for a lot of people. I mean, are you – you know, how do you do it? I mean, it’s not exactly a secret that, you know, Republican supporters blame President Biden for these high gas prices. Are you ready to stand up and say it’s actually, like he said in his press conference, no, it’s Russia?

TILLUS: Well, I think it’s a combination of factors. I said that when we come back to the United States, we can have a debate about economic policy and spending and that sort of thing – the factors that are really fueling the inflation that existed before February 24th. But it is also very fair to say that what we have seen since the invasion of Ukraine are inflationary factors that are only here.

MARTIN: What do you think, Senator Shaheen? I mean, how do we get Americans to continue to, I don’t know, accept the urgency of the moment they’re – that’s how they live with it, like their wallet issues?

SHAHEEN: Well, and I appreciate that. I understand that some people really have a hard time paying more at the gas pump, paying more for food. But my responsibility as an elected official is to say why the sacrifice matters. And so far, what I’m hearing from my constituents in New Hampshire is that they’re willing to pay the price because they understand, like me – and I’m talking about this – that our future – if we allow Vladimir Putin and Russia to win in Ukraine, our opponents are watching that. And what will this mean for China in the future and its interest in taking control of Taiwan and other parts of the South China Sea? What will this mean for Iran as it looks at its ambitions in the Middle East, in North Korea?

We have a security interest in what is happening in Ukraine and what it means for the future of the United States. What is interesting about the strategic concept that was approved at the summit is that it addresses the new threats of the 21st century. So right now we have a conventional war in Ukraine. But when we look at the challenges that countries face in the future, it’s misinformation, it’s cyber threats, it’s pandemics. And the challenge for NATO is to think about how it conducts its business in order to respond to these new threats.

MARTIN: Well, some might also say that these are illiberal tendencies that arise in formerly settled democracies.

SHAHEEN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So, you know, to this – and, Senator Tillis, I have to ask you, this is a – you know, one of the other major stories was the testimony of a former Trump White House aide on his conduct before – January 6. You voted against impeachment, saying that the House, in your opinion, did not even address the most serious issue, which was not what he did afterward but his inability to contain him. Now that you have this additional testimony, does it change your thinking?

TILLUS: No, it’s not. You know, the concern I had with the impeachment process was timing in both cases and due process. And so even – and these hearings can be instructive for the Department of Justice. But at the end of the day, it’s something that has to be settled with law enforcement, not with political bodies.

MARTIN: And you, Senator Shaheen? Is there anything in this additional testimony that you find particularly compelling, that you think should lead to further investigation?

SHAHEEN: Well, I agree that if there is – I think further investigation is helpful. If anything comes out of it, if there are charges laid, it’s up to the Department of Justice to determine that.

MARTIN: But is this additional testimony compelling in a way you might not expect?

SHAHEEN: There’s information that’s been leaked that I wasn’t aware of, and I think some of that information has been compelling. But the fundamental problem here is that we had a former president and his administration who tried to overthrow the government of the United States, and that is not acceptable. And we have to help people understand. And, you know, for a lot of people, they believed the former president because that’s all they heard. So we have to make sure people understand what’s really going on. And in that regard, I think these hearings are important.

MARTIN: Alright. We’ll have to leave it at that for now. Senator Tillis, Senator Shaheen, thank you for speaking to us. Safe travels.

SHAHEEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Have a safe trip home.

TILLUS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you.


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