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Shoring up NATO alliance tops Biden agenda on Europe trip


President Biden is heading to Europe tomorrow. His primary mission - shore up the NATO alliance. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid is already in London, where Biden will visit first, and joins us now. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there, Scott.

DETROW: So the president has staked a lot on his ability to rebuild NATO and strengthen alliances with Europe. What's at stake here?

KHALID: Well, Scott, I should just acknowledge why I'm in London here, and that is because, as you said, Biden's going to begin his trip here in the United Kingdom. It's the first time he'll be meeting King Charles since Charles was officially named king. But really, the focus of this entire Europe trip is the NATO summit in Vilnius. That's in Lithuania. And Biden heads there on Monday. A key unresolved issue heading into this NATO summit is Sweden's membership. You might recall both Sweden and Finland applied to join the alliance after Russia invaded Ukraine. And it's been more than a year now since that application process, and the Sweden issue is still unresolved. The main opposition has been coming from Turkey.

DETROW: Yeah. Finland got in. In fact, Biden's visiting Finland later in the trip. But there are 31 members of NATO. They all have to agree to allow a new member in. What is Turkey's opposition to Sweden?

KHALID: Well, experts tell me that broadly, Turkey has long felt like its priorities are overlooked by the NATO alliance, and Turkey believes Sweden needs to do more to crack down on groups that Turkey views as terrorists. It has been demanding Sweden extradite suspected Kurdish militants. But, Scott, I will also say that experts tell me that this entire debate is not really entirely about Sweden. It's much more about the U.S.-Turkey dynamic. Sinan Ciddi is a fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and he was telling me that Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants some assurances if he agrees to NATO expansion.

SINAN CIDDI: President Erdogan figured that he could use this as a leverage point. This has less to do with Sweden than it is to do with what he can get out of the United States specifically, which is weapon sales.

KHALID: And to be clear, the weapons he's referring to are F-16 fighter jets that Turkey wants from the United States.

DETROW: Yeah. What's the sticking point with those F-16s?

KHALID: Really, at this point, the sticking point is Congress. You've got some key members, including Democrat Bob Menendez, who have to approve this sale, who have thus far publicly opposed it. You know, I will say in Washington, this is possibly seen as a bargaining chip. Biden has made it clear he wants Sweden to join NATO. And Erdogan, Turkey's president, has made it clear he wants the fighter jets. So we'll have to see exactly how this transpires in the coming weeks.

DETROW: I mean, Biden talking about NATO all being on the same page at this moment has been such a key part of his presidency. Does this disagreement expose cracks in that alliance?

KHALID: I mean, I will say there is no doubt that the alliance has been remarkably unified in its response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and Biden intends to highlight that on his trip. You know, I will say, though, that this issue of Sweden is noteworthy. I mean, we've heard national security adviser Jake Sullivan tell reporters just the other day that they are confident Sweden will join NATO. He's just not sure of the timeline.

But one expert I spoke with said that this issue of NATO expansion is exposing some disagreements. You know, the alliance was built for defense purposes. It doesn't have a great way of dealing with internal disagreements. And, you know, that could be an ongoing issue, especially if you look at the debate over Ukraine joining NATO. And we expect that to come up here at the NATO summit. We've heard from this White House they want Ukraine to join, but there's, again, not a clear timetable of when that will happen and this White House that says Ukraine needs to implement additional reforms if it wants to join NATO.

DETROW: Sounds like a pretty busy night in London behind you, Asma.

KHALID: Good talking to you.

DETROW: You, too. That's NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid in London. Say hi to King Charles for us. 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.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.