A ‘Renewed Resolve’ in Congress to Reinforce NATO
In an exclusive interview, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA) says US role in NATO has been ‘worth every penny’
There is a “renewed resolve” in the US Congress “to reinforce NATO and its mission, to rededicate ourselves to meeting certain goals like the 2 percent goal for defense spending, and to send clear and unmistakable messages to Vladimir Putin’s Russia that the physical compromise of sovereign territory will not be tolerated and that Article 5 is alive and well,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA).
Proof of this bipartisan congressional resolve Connolly talks about is evident in the invitation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to address a joint session of Congress in April.
“[T]he invitation to Mr. Stoltenberg is very important, both symbolically in terms of the esteem in which NATO is held here in the United States Congress on a bipartisan basis, but also the opportunity for Secretary Stoltenberg to extol the virtues and maybe recount some of the achievements of NATO over the last seventy years, which are considerable,” Connolly, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview with the New Atlanticist in his Capitol Hill office. In February, Pelosi appointed Connolly chairman of the US Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
Such shows of bipartisan congressional support come at a time when US President Donald J. Trump has railed against allies for not meeting defense spending targets, called into question the efficacy of the Alliance, and even threatened to pull the United States out.
On April 4 it will be seventy years since the founding of NATO in the aftermath of World War II. Connolly says the United States has derived considerable benefit from its membership in the Alliance.
“[T]he fact of the matter is that in its seventy-year history, [NATO] has helped us avoid another global conflict, especially one that engulfs all of Europe. It is probably the longest peacetime period in European history in two millennia. I call that a pretty good track record and it has been worth every penny for the United States because that prevention is worth a lot of cure,” he said.
The NATO Parliamentary Assembly is a forum in which members of parliament from across the Alliance can discuss and influence decisions on transatlantic security. Institutionally separate from NATO, the Parliamentary Assembly serves as an essential link between NATO and the parliaments of the NATO member states.
One of his priorities as the chairman of the US delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is to “make sure that we have vigorous debate about policies, but at the end of the day we also show our collective will and cohesion behind those policies,” said Connolly.
One of those areas is Russia sanctions, he added.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Q: Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader McConnell have invited NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to address a joint session of Congress in April. Why is this invitation important and what message would you like to hear from the secretary general?
Connolly: I don’t know that a secretary general of NATO has ever spoken to a joint session of Congress. So I think the invitation to Mr. Stoltenberg is very important, both symbolically in terms of the esteem in which NATO is held here in the United States Congress on a bipartisan basis, but also the opportunity for Secretary Stoltenberg to extol the virtues and maybe recount some of the achievements of NATO over the last seventy years, which are considerable.
Q: NATO is coming up on its seventieth anniversary. What is the value to the United States of its membership in this alliance?
Connolly: Sometimes we forget our history. In the case of both the Cold War and the memories of World War II we’re not talking ancient history. For those who grew up with stories of World War II from grandparents or even parents, the horrors of that war in Europe boggled the mind. And so, making sure we build structures that prevented another war like that in central Europe was really critical.
In response both to that fear of another war and to the growing hegemony and aggression of Stalinist Soviet Union, NATO was born. It has proved to be a durable and effective tool both of diplomacy and of military deterrence. The fact of the matter is that in its seventy-year history, it has helped us avoid another global conflict, especially one that engulfs all of Europe. It is probably the longest peacetime period in European history in two millennia.
I call that a pretty good track record and it has been worth every penny for the United States because that prevention is worth a lot of cure.
Q; Why is it critical now more than ever that NATO operate from a position of strength and common resolve?
Connolly: I think maybe after the end of the Cold War there was a period of time of not only a relief but maybe complacency, and that might be understandable. So a lot of countries stood down their defense investments and allowed the United States to play a more significant role while allowing their own military to decline, both in investment dollars and, frankly, in capability.
I don’t think that those voices gave much thought to the rise of Vladimir Putin and a resurgent, more aggressive Russia that resembles the Soviet Union of old more than anything else. We have seen physically that that represents a threat to peace and stability on the European continent—not just in Europe, but we can start with Europe. And so there have been Russian incursions compromising the sovereign territory of Georgia, Moldova, and, of course, Ukraine, and continued threats to the sovereignty of the three Baltic republics and several other former Soviet satellite nations. And so, our job is not done. Preserving the peace means investing in defense to make sure that that deterrence is there for everyone to see, including our would be adversary Russia.
It is vitally important that NATO rededicate itself to its mission and protect the autonomy and sovereignty of the states within its confines. I think that mission is more important than it has been in a long time.
Q: President Trump has publicly railed against US NATO allies and even threatened to pull out of the Alliance. You were in Brussels for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Joint Committee meeting in February. What is the mood of US allies?
Connolly: In the last two years I have seen an evolution in the mood among our allies from one of anxiety and curiosity and the need for reassurance to maybe a sense of almost collective defiance that “we’re simply not going to be bullied or cowed by the voices from the right and we’re not going to be dictated to by one leader however important his position may be, about the merits of this collective security pact known as NATO.”
I think there is maybe a renewed resolve among our allies—and certainly here in Congress on a bipartisan basis—to reinforce NATO and its mission, to rededicate ourselves to meeting certain goals like the 2 percent goal for defense spending, and to send clear and unmistakable messages to Vladimir Putin’s Russia that the physical compromise of sovereign territory will not be tolerated and that Article 5 is alive and well.
Q: What does the Trump administration need to do to reassure US allies?
Connolly: I believe President Trump needs to stop suggesting that NATO is obsolete or that maybe we wouldn’t honor our commitments to NATO because other countries aren’t doing their fair part.
NATO is a collective treaty obligation and has served US interests very well.
There are many ways we can nudge, cajole, exhort our partners in NATO without threatening them. A confident power does not need to nor does it devolve into threats and intimidation. I would hope the Trump administration would understand that and the president personally would stop resorting to that kind of rhetoric and those kinds of tactics—they backfire and they are unhelpful because I think they send, I hope an unintended, but nonetheless they send a message to Vladimir Putin that maybe he could break up the western alliance, which, with the United States’ participation, has always posed the greatest threat to then Soviet Union now Russia. He needs an unmistakable message that the US commitment to this partnership is unshakeable.
Q: While Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have made commitments to Article 5, how important was it that this commitment came from the president himself?
Connolly: It was necessary because in previous public addresses in Europe the president did not make that commitment. We know that people close to him—like Steve Bannon—have specifically cited examples to ridicule the commitment of Article 5. Why would the United States go to war over Estonia was the classic example of the alt right.
Well, by having collective security, I will say this: the Soviet Union and now Russia are very careful about boundaries that involve NATO members. That should tell you a lot about the value of that collective security. We’re in this together; you attack one you attack us all, including us. I think that has been a very powerful and efficacious message for seventy years.
Q: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has credited pressure from President Trump for the increase in NATO allies’ defense spending. Is there a silver lining to the president’s approach toward US allies and alliances?
Connolly: We have been exhorting our NATO allies to up their game and to meet their Wales obligation of 2 percent of their GDP for defense spending. That is a level of investment, but behind that level, of course, are assumptions about beefing up military capability, exercises, training, equipment, number of troops so that the Alliance is robust.
We have grave reservations about the capabilities of some of our closest NATO allies because they have allowed their military capability to decline—in some cases precipitously. Russian intelligence can understand that as much as we can. That weakens the deterrent threat from NATO.
I think to that extent, President Trump being quite insistent about this as “I mean it” and “you’re jeopardizing NATO itself if you don’t meet these goals you said you would” is probably helpful. How he has done it is another matter.
Q: What are your priorities as chairman of the US Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly?
Connolly: I want to make sure that we have vigorous debate about policies, but at the end of the day we also show our collective will and cohesion behind those policies. Let me take say Russian sanctions. I think it’s vital that there be no daylight among us on sending a clear and unmistakable message to the Russians about their illegal annexation of Crimea, about the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, about their illegal occupation of sovereign Georgian territory and parts of Moldova, and that we are prepared to support those countries even though they are not NATO members yet. And, certainly, don’t even think about compromising the sovereign integrity of a NATO member. We mean it, we will invoke NATO Article 5 and no matter what the debate is here in the United States at the end of the day our resolve is unshakeable and you should not mistake it; that would be a big miscalculation. And, by the way, your misbehavior in Europe—you will pay a price for it—ongoing, economic, potentially militarily, and you ought to start to really think about what you are doing.
Q: How can we help create a better awareness of the Alliance among those who doubt its importance?
Connolly: Sometimes maybe we speak in bureaucratic language in these international bodies or alliances. And sometimes maybe plainspeak might better penetrate public awareness and consciousness, might be easier to digest through various media.
It’s important that NATO avail itself of 21st century tools for communication—social media, podcasts, all kinds of other ways of communicating especially to a younger population so that NATO is alive and well and is a 21st century enterprise, not some vestige of the Cold War.
Finding platforms like we are finding here for Secretary General Stoltenberg before a joint session of Congress is going to be great because that’s going to help reinforce all those different media outlets and raise the visibility of the organization. I think that’s important.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.