In face of crit­i­cism, NATO works to build its con­ser­va­tive sup­port

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Julian E. Barnes

WASH­ING­TON — The head of the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion worked to shore up sup­port in Wash­ing­ton this week, with boost­ers of the al­liance anx­ious to re­tain the sup­port of con­ser­va­tives in the United States amid crit­i­cism by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and be­fore a pos­si­ble Se­nate vote next year on ex­pan­sion.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO sec­re­tary-gen­eral, worked Capi­tol Hill this week to make a case that the al­liance was im­por­tant to Amer­i­can pros­per­ity and se­cu­rity, keep­ing peace in Europe and bol­ster­ing U.S. mil­i­tary might and in­tel­li­gence reach.

Stoltenberg has one of the more dif­fi­cult jobs in in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy, try­ing to make progress on Trump’s de­mands for more Euro­pean mil­i­tary spend­ing, as­sur­ing al­lies that the United States re­mains com­mit­ted to Europe’s de­fense and try­ing to keep sep­a­rate is­sues of trade and for­eign pol­icy that Wash­ing­ton is in­tent on merg­ing.

But he has proved to be one of the Euro­pean al­lies most adept at han­dling Trump, main­tain­ing a good re­la­tion­ship de­spite the White House’s fre­quent crit­i­cisms.

NATO has re­mained a fa­vorite punch­ing bag of Trump, who re­turns to the fact that most of Western Europe has not yet met the al­liance goal of spend­ing 2 per­cent of eco­nomic out­put on de­fense.

The al­liance has main­tained broad sup­port on Capi­tol Hill de­spite Trump’s at­tacks. But al­lied of­fi­cials have been wor­ried that con­ser­va­tive sup­port could weaken. The Se­nate next year could face a vote on rat­i­fy­ing Mace­do­nia as a mem­ber of the al­liance, if the small Balkan coun­try agrees to change its name in a ref­er­en­dum this month.

The White House crit­i­cism of NATO, ac­cord­ing to sur­veys done by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, has eroded some Repub­li­can sup­port for the al­liance, although Demo­cratic pub­lic sup­port has risen.

In an in­ter­view, Stoltenberg said po­lit­i­cal de­bate over NATO should not be feared but wel­comed. He re­called one of his first po­lit­i­cal fights, per­suad­ing his left-wing youth or­ga­ni­za­tion to re­verse a stance against the al­liance.

“When you be­lieve in demo­cratic val­ues, you should not be afraid of de­bate,” Stoltenberg said. “It is ac­tu­ally more dan­ger­ous if you never dis­cuss NATO, then sup­port for NATO can erode.”

Some lib­er­tar­ian writ­ers have been skep­ti­cal of ex­pan­sion by NATO in the Balkans, ar­gu­ing that the small coun­tries there bring new se­cu­rity re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for the United States, rather than bol­ster­ing U.S. de­fense.

At a speech Fri­day at the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion, Stoltenberg ar­gued that NATO ex­pan­sion bol­sters de­fense by build­ing sta­bil­ity in Europe.

“NATO has helped to spread demo­cratic val­ues, free en­ter­prise and sta­bil­ity to mil­lions of peo­ple in the east­ern part of Europe,” Stoltenberg said. “This rep­re­sents a his­toric geopo­lit­i­cal shift that has ben­e­fited the United States and the world at large.”

But he also ar­gued that the strength of Europe’s mil­i­tary and spy ser­vices is also em­ployed for the de­fense of the United States.

Stoltenberg said al­lied in­tel­li­gence ser­vices were help­ing the United States by track­ing the move­ments of both ter­ror­ist cells and Rus­sian sub­marines.

“Amer­ica’s NATO al­lies em­ploy tens of thou­sands in­tel­li­gence per­son­nel, many of them work­ing in close coordination with their U.S. coun­ter­parts, giv­ing the United States bet­ter eyes and ears than you would other­wise have,” he said.

Still, Stoltenberg was quick to add his now prac­ticed lines about how Trump’s pres­sure and cri­tique of the al­liance has helped bol­ster mil­i­tary spend­ing.

“Last year, NATO al­lies across Europe and Canada boosted their de­fense bud­gets by a com­bined 5.2 per­cent,” Stoltenberg said. “The big­gest in­crease, in real terms, in a quar­ter of a cen­tury.”

Trump’s fo­cus on Euro­pean mil­i­tary spend­ing has brought sus­tained at­ten­tion to the is­sue, but spend­ing be­gan ris­ing be­fore the pres­i­dent’s pres­sure cam­paign in the wake of Rus­sia’s 2014 an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and the re­al­iza­tion in Western Europe that Moscow was once again a desta­bi­liz­ing force on the Con­ti­nent.

DOUG M. NILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump (right) es­corts NATO Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Jens Stoltenberg into the U.S. Em­bassy in Brus­sels in July.

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