Secretary General Stoltenberg: NATO is Important for American Security

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Washington, April 7, 2016Jens Stoltenberg became secretary general of NATO in 2014. Earlier, he served as prime minister of Norway, from 2005 until 2013. Earlier this week, Stoltenberg met at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss, among other things, NATO’s role in the fight against ISIS and the alliance’s ongoing response to increased Russian assertiveness. For Stoltenberg, the timing of the meeting was propitious: intentionally or not, it served as a very public rebuke to Donald Trump, the front-runner in the Republican presidential campaign, who has recently begun to harshly criticize NATO, even suggesting that it might be best for the United States if the alliance were to break up. A few hours after meeting with Obama, Stoltenberg spoke with Foreign Affairs deputy managing editor Justin Vogt.

It’s been a long time since NATO was a contentious issue in American politics—or in a U.S. presidential campaign, at least. But Donald Trump has made it one. Trump has claimed that NATO is “obsolete” and that the alliance represents a bad bargain for the United States. A few days ago, Trump said the following at a rally in Wisconsin: “We are protecting [the other alliance members] and they are getting all sorts of military protection and other things and they’re ripping off the United States and they’re ripping you off. I don’t want to do that. Either they pay up, including for past deficiencies, or they have to get out. And if it breaks up NATO, it breaks up NATO.”

What’s your response to that line of criticism, and what do you make of the fact that NATO has become an issue in this campaign?

I cannot comment on the U.S. election campaign and I will not comment on any election campaign in any NATO allied country. It’s up to the American people to decide who’s going to be the next president. I will not be part of that decision. But I can tell you that NATO is as important and as vital for our security as ever, especially because we face a more dangerous road. So it is even more important that we stand together. NATO is important to European security, but NATO is also important for American security. We stand together in the fight against [the Islamic State, also known as ISIS]. Terrorism affects us all, from Brussels to San Bernardino. NATO is stepping up its efforts to support the coalition fighting ISIS. We have to remember that our biggest military operation ever—in Afghanistan—was a direct response to [the 9/11 attacks] on the United States. And the only time we have invoked Article V—NATO’s collective defense clause—was after that attack on the United States.

One third of the forces that have fought in Afghanistan are from Canada or Europe. More than 1,000 Canadian and European soldiers have lost their lives there. Many more have been wounded. This is just one example of Europeans and Canadians standing together with the United States, in making sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for organizing attacks against the United States.

So, NATO is based on the idea of “one for all, all for one,” and we protect each other. And that’s good for the United States, that’s good for Europe, and we have to stand together because we live in a more dangerous world….

Obama has complained, in a different context, about “free riders”—countries that benefit from U.S. military strength but don’t contribute enough to their own security. You met with him this morning. Did he bring that up during your conversation?

First of all, his message was that we need a strong NATO and that the answer to a more dangerous world is not less NATO, it’s more NATO. The second message was that NATO is playing a big, important role in the fight against terrorism and we stand together. From Afghanistan through Iraq, the Middle East, and North Africa, NATO supports the efforts to fight ISIS. And that is something which is important for Europe but also important for the United States. Then, of course, [Obama] reiterated the message about the importance of European defense spending, and I absolutely agree with him. The picture is mixed but it is better than it was a year ago. We have a long way to go but we have started to push….

Since the Ukraine crisis and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, there has been a great deal of discussion about how NATO can protect its Baltic members—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—against potential Russian aggression. Can you explain NATO’s strategy for deterring a Russian incursion into the Baltics and for defending the Baltic members? What does the strategy actually look like?

Our message to any country that would consider violating the territorial integrity of any NATO ally is that we stand together. And what we have done over the last few years is that we have increased our presence in the eastern part of the alliance. And we agreed at our defense minister meeting in February to step up and increase the presence of multinational forces. And we will decide at our summit in Warsaw in July on the size and the composition [of those forces], but it’s all declared that this will be a multinational force. And the important thing with a multinational force is that it will send a clear signal that an attack on one ally will be an attack on all allies.

Image: Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Washington, April 7, 2016 (photo: NATO)