NATO has not collapsed. Despite many dire predictions, the 70-year-old alliance did not succumb to President Donald Trump’s disapproving tweets this summer, nor has the Trump administration withdrawn from the treaty, as some of the president’s supporters had hoped and his critics had feared.
Instead, since July’s summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says, the alliance has become stronger than ever, increasing defense spending and capabilities to meet two challenges at once: boosting defenses against a resurgent Russia, and supporting missions outside its borders all the way to Afghanistan. Member countries are spending more money on collective defense, in part thanks to Trump’s pressure, and NATO has more troops in fighting positions in Eastern Europe. Polls show strong support for the alliance among member populations, especially in America.
But it hasn’t come easy. Those same publics elected Trump and other leaders who have become the alliance’s sharpest internal critics in years. Some European leaders now say they should not rely on the U.S. or U.K. for their defense, and must build up their militaries on their own.
For better or worse, it all has put the Secretary General Stoltenberg in a tense political role, shepherding the alliance members through a period of discontent while claiming to be as essential to their security as ever.
Listen to the full interview on the Defense One Radio podcast, here.
“I very much felt my that responsibility was to convince all capitals and also our — who were in doubt — that yes, there are disagreements in NATO,” Stoltenberg said of the Summit, in an interview with Defense One in Washington on Friday, “that yes, we are 29 allies from both sides of the Atlantic with different cultural and different political views on some issues, and we have seen some disagreements on trade issues, on the Iran nuclear deal, on the Paris Climate Change Accord, and on many other issues. But the strength of NATO is that despite those kinds of differences, which are serious and important topics, NATO has always been able to unite around our core task, that is, to protect and defend each other. Because we all know that we are stronger together than alone.”
Two months after the summit, Stoltenberg is still selling. After meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and members of Congress, he chose to deliver his main public speech in Washington during this visit at the conservative Heritage Foundation, a more likely conduit to Trump’s more skeptical base voters. His speech opened not with a deep dive into foreign policy, rather he started with a simple justification of NATO’s existence:
“Today I want to speak to you about the value of NATO. NATO is very important to Europe. That’s widely recognized. But it is also very important to the United States. Let me mention three main reasons why,” Stoltenberg began.
It was a notably basic beginning for what in previous years would be a sophisticated policy speech, he agreed.
“I think you are right,” he said to Defense One, in a podcast interview shortly after his speech, “but the reason why I did that was that people question it. That’s a fact, you can read the newspapers, you can see what the politicians and others are saying about NATO. They question NATO.”
“In one way, that’s a problem,” he said, “but on the other hand I think it was a good thing because I think that it’s good that NATO is challenged. NATO has been a great success for 70 years, but there’s no guarantee that NATO will be a success for the next 70 years.”
For Stoltenberg, how the alliance has met the newest threats, including Russia’s physical and cyber incursions into Europe and the US, has shown why NATO remains critical to security.
“For the first time in NATO’s history we need to do crisis management beyond our borders and collective defense within Europe at the same time,” he noted, arguing that alliance members cannot lower their defenses now. That’s why he is hitting the road, selling NATO even where most don’t need convincing.
“NATO will never survive, NATO will never continue to be a strong alliance if we don’t have the support of ordinary citizens,” he said. “I’m an old politician, so I’m actually used to doing campaigning.” Doing it as secretary general is similar, he said. “For me, it’s not a problem that there’s a political debate about NATO. Because that triggers that we had to be vigilant, that we need to think to why we matter and be able to explain this. So, we should not regret that people are questioning us. I think that’s challenge we have to live up to.”
One of the most unpopular missions NATO remains tasked with is the war in Afghanistan, which has been the subject of renewed criticism this summer following increased Taliban attacks on cities, civilians, and Afghanistan military bases. On that, Stoltenberg said he sees no other option.
“I hear concerns and commitments,” he said. “At the same time, I think we are all concerned about what we see in Afghanistan. We see violence; we see Taliban; we see suicide attacks; we see challenges in the government; we still see corruption; we see a lot of killing of innocent civilians – so there are many reasons to be concerned. But at the same time, I see that NATO allies, also all the European allies and partners who are together with us in Afghanistan, they are very committed to stay and continue to support and help the Afghans.”
“There is a cost of continuing to stay in Afghanistan. We still see some NATO soldiers being killed. We still have some casualties. Less than before, but still there are casualties. There is an economic cost. But the cost of leaving is higher than the cost of staying. Because if we leave Afghanistan, and now — then I’m afraid the Taliban would come back. We would see ISIS, which is also present in Afghanistan, would try to establish the caliphate they lost in Iraq and Syria, they would try to establish that in Afghanistan. And we may see, mostly likely we would see, that Afghanistan again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists and a platform where they can train, organize, [and] plan terrorist attacks against us.”
Stoltenberg does not favor staying indefinitely.
“It’s not black and white, it’s not like, to stay is easy and to leave is always wrong,” he said, but NATO members are constantly reevaluating the conditions. “We have concluded that despite the costs, despite uncertainties, despite all the problems, it is better to stay.”