In the first address to Congress by a NATO head, Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday acknowledged serious divisions within the alliance and called for bigger defense budgets to cope with global challenges such as Russian assertiveness, the core reason NATO was created in Washington 70 years ago this week.
“We have to be frank,” Stoltenberg said before a joint meeting of Congress. “Questions are being asked on both sides of the Atlantic about the strength of our partnership. And, yes, there are differences.”
The NATO secretary general credited President Donald Trump with compelling allies to spend more on defense, without noting that Trump also has questioned the value of the alliance and suggested that some members are freeloaders. Trump’s criticisms have upset a delicate balance within an alliance that has long counted on Washington to be its leader.
Stoltenberg made a point of highlighting the benefits to the United States of having NATO allies. He noted, for example, that in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NATO invoked Article 5 of its founding charter to come to the aid of a member under attack. He said allies also provide the U.S. with valuable military support in peacetime, from tracking submarines in the Arctic to providing bases in Europe from which the U.S. can project power.
“Our alliance has not lasted for 70 years out of a sense of nostalgia or of sentiment,” he said. “NATO lasts because it is in the national interest of each and every one of our countries.”
Stoltenberg on Thursday will lead a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to mark 70 years since the alliance’s founding charter, the North Atlantic Treaty. The alliance has grown from its original 12 members to 29, with the Republic of North Macedonia about to become the 30th member country.
Stoltenberg, a two-time former prime minister of Norway, is the first head of NATO to address a joint meeting of Congress. He touted the alliance’s long record of partnership but also noted that it has a history of coping with internal divisions, including strong opposition by France, Germany and other members to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“Open discussions and different views is not a sign of weakness,” he said. “It is a sign of strength. So we should not be surprised when we see differences between our countries. Today there are disagreements on issues such as trade, energy, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. These are serious issues with serious disagreements.”
Trump has sharply criticized other NATO members, including Germany, for not meeting spending targets. On Tuesday, however, he praised the generally upward trend in spending among the European allies. But he hounded them to pay even more, saying America still shoulders a disproportionate share of the cost of protecting Europe.
In a meeting at the White House, Trump and Stoltenberg had kind words for each other. But in the past, Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and suggested he might pull the U.S. out of the alliance if member nations didn’t significantly boost their defense spending.
“We’ve worked together on getting some of our allies to pay their fair share,” Trump told reporters. “At some point, it’s going to have to go higher.”
Trump took credit for the increased spending. However, spending by NATO countries, which dropped after the end of the Cold War, has actually been rising since 2014, before Trump took office.
“Prior to our getting here, NATO’s spending was going way, way down,” Trump said. “It was just a one-way road down. And since I became president … it’s been a rocket ship up, and we have to keep it that way.”
After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, member countries agreed to boost defense budgets and “move toward” spending 2% of their gross domestic products on defense by 2024. The U.S. spends about 3.4% of its GDP on defense.
Since Trump took office, European allies and Canada have added $41 billion to their defense budgets. By the end of next year, this is scheduled to rise to $100 billion, Stoltenberg said. Germany remains the main target of Trump’s ire because it plans to spend 1.5%, lower than the 2% guideline, by 2024.
“Germany is not paying their fair share,” Trump said.
Stoltenberg has said the 2% guideline was not invented by the United States and was a target the 29 allies set in 2014.
“The allies are really stepping up,” Stoltenberg said in an interview with The Associated Press.