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Donald Trump's verbal attacks on American NATO allies that are "not paying their part" are further proof of his complete lack of understanding of NATO's structure and the real problems threatening American security.

The Republican presidential candidate's confidence in Vladimir Putin, Russia's increasingly powerful and aggressive leader, and his warnings he won't protect certain NATO members have already endangered the homeland and reduced America's global credibility.

For better or worse, NATO plays a major role in protecting the U.S. against a host of threats ranging from the Islamic State to aggressive nations like Russia.

And not all those threats are military ones, as Russian and North Korean hacking of American internet traffic has shown.

Nor do our allies' contributions to the alliance come only in the form of the "cash transactions" by which Trump measures things. The tiny Baltic states Trump says aren't paying their share are on the geopolitical frontline of Russian aggression and have already been targets of hacking and border incursions. They are the buffers.

The countries of Eastern Europe as well as our allies in Western Europe not only host NATO troops — many of whom are Americans — but have also contributed their own troops to our fights in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Their actions have made them targets.

Whatever Trump claims, neither the new nor the old entrants to NATO are free-riders. All of them pay into the NATO budget, even if some have fallen short of the recommended minimum of 2 percent of gross domestic product.

All members maintain military forces tooled to fit Western models and have fought alongside us when needed.

For new entrants from what was once communist Eastern Europe, this has meant having to chuck their old Soviet arms and battle plans and invest their scarce resources, with our help, to make their militaries compatible with NATO forces.

These nations guard their own borders, a number of which abut Russia, and have stood ready to contribute to mutual causes, as they instantly did after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 9/11.

Sadly, NATO has not been outdated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the rise of international terrorism and Russia's Putin, with whom Trump says he sees eye-to-eye, NATO is as necessary today as it was in 1949.

The new threats are not as simple as the old. Russia, like the old Soviet Union that collapsed around it, is even more transparent and aggressive in its desires to expand power.

The engagement of Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine and Russia's blatant takeover of Crimea in 2014 — the first shift of European borders since Hitler's invasion of the Sudetenland — was undeniable proof of its determination to expand.

The shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines flight by a Russian missile is even more proof that there are dangers we can't ignore or fight ourselves.

Not only is Trump frighteningly wrong on the worth of little countries in Europe but he also fails to understand the very meaning of the term "alliance" and the very real threats in the world.

Rather than talk about building a wall to keep out what he regards as "dangerous refugees," he should talk about strengthening the alliances we have, which protect our interests and those of other democracies working with us against dictators and terrorists.

Jane Leftwich Curry of Santa Clara University is a political science professor with an expertise in Eastern European politics.

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