In face of criticism, NATO works to build its conservative support
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.
President Donald Trump (right) escorts NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg into the U.S. Embassy in Brussels in July.