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Biden kicks off NATO summit with highly scrutinized speech

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden welcomed world leaders to Washington this week for a summit to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the NATO alliance. It is an alliance that Biden has put at the center of his foreign policy, and this was a week he had sought to elevate his leadership on the world stage. But for Biden, this has also become a week that's a big test for his campaign after that rocky debate performance raised questions about his political future. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now to discuss this. Hi there.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Asma, tell us. What was the president's message tonight in the speech?

KHALID: Well, the central message was to reassure allies that Russia will not prevail in Ukraine and that the NATO alliance remains strong. He referred to it as the single greatest, most effective defensive alliance in the history of the world. And he spoke in this historic auditorium. In fact, it was the site where the NATO treaty was first signed in 1949. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And Putin wants nothing less - nothing less - than Ukraine's total subjugation, to end Ukraine's, to democracy destroy Ukraine's culture and to wipe Ukraine off the map. And we know Putin won't stop at Ukraine.

KHALID: He also spoke about providing additional support for Ukraine's air defense. He'll be meeting with Ukraine's President Zelenskyy later this week, and so you can expect to hear more about this all. There seems to be, I will say, Juana, attempts to institutionalize support for Ukraine and sort of Trump-proof NATO regardless of what happens here in the U.S. with elections in the future.

SUMMERS: And speaking of elections, Asma, did you hear the president get political at all in the speech this evening?

KHALID: No. I mean, he nodded to the fact that both Democrats and Republicans were in the audience, and there was this interesting moment where he quoted former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, for his commitment to NATO. He did, though, obliquely nod to something that he sees as a major accomplishment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: In the year 2020, the year I was elected president, only nine NATO allies were spending 2% of their defense - their GDP on defense. This year 23 will spend at least 2%.

KHALID: And, you know, this is in contrast to what we've heard, I think, from the former President Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee. He has repeatedly questioned the U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance. He has suggested cutting funding to Ukraine. In fact, earlier this year at a campaign rally, he implied that the U.S. would not uphold its end of the most sacred part of the NATO treaty, which is that an attack on one is an attack on all. He suggested Russia could do whatever it wants to allies that don't contribute their fair share financially to the defense pact.

SUMMERS: Tell us, Asma. What's at stake for President Biden personally?

KHALID: Well, the NATO alliance has been a key priority for President Biden, and I would say, you know, it's something that he sees as part of his legacy. And it really has been overshadowed this week with a focus on whether he might drop out of the presidential race after the recent debate. You know, the administration has been desperately trying to quiet worries about the president's performance here at home. And I will say this week he is also trying to do it on the global stage. He's going to be trying to demonstrate to anxious allies that he still has the stamina for this job. Tonight's speech was read off a teleprompter. It was not unscripted remarks like during the debate, which, you know, caused a lot of concern. And I also note, Juana, he'll be doing a press conference on Thursday that many eyes will be on.

SUMMERS: How closely are European allies watching?

KHALID: Well, they're watching this all very closely, what's happening at NATO but also, I would say, broadly about Biden's ability to effectively campaign. You know, there is a lot at stake here. I would say fundamentally, European leaders know there is a big difference between the isolationist America First worldview that Trump has and the more internationalist, cooperative leadership role that Biden sees for the United States. And so depending on who wins the election in November, there's a lot at stake not just here at home but, obviously, around the world.

SUMMERS: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you.

KHALID: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.