NATO secretary general's unprecedented speech to Congress downplays disagreements with Trump, but sends 'powerful reminder' to the president

Antonio Masiello/Getty ImagesNATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
  • NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg delivered a speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday.
  • Stoltenberg is the first head of an international organisation to do so.
  • Stoltenberg downplayed disagreements with President Donald Trump and applauded the president for pressuring NATO allies to increase defence spending.
  • Experts say Stoltenberg’s praise of Trump is part of a broader strategy of both flattering him and hoping he won’t be reelected.

WASHINGTON – Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), delivered a rare speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary.

Stoltenberg used the speech as an opportunity to tout the historic alliance and praise the US government’s “enduring support” for NATO. He also downplayed disagreements President Donald Trump has had with NATO, contending “differences” between member states are a sign of strength.

“The strength of NATO is that despite our differences, we have always been able to unite around our core task: to defend each other, protect each other, and to keep our people safe,” Stoltenberg said.

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Stoltenberg’s address is the first of its kind, after receiving the invite from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in March. While heads of state have delivered addresses to Congress, Stoltenberg is the first leader of an international organisation to receive the honour.

Prominent officials in recent years who have delivered addresses to joint meetings of Congress include Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Pope Francis.

Trump relationship with NATO has been tense during the past two years

At times, Trump has undercut the United States’ commitment to NATO’s collective defence agreement, also known as Article 5. In another instance, Trump canceled a congressional delegation’s trip to Brussels where several lawmakers – including Pelosi – were slated to meet with top allies and NATO officials.

Most prominent is how the White House has pressured other NATO partners to boost their respective military budgets, which President Donald Trump has cited as each country “paying their fair share.”

And Stoltenberg acknowledged on Tuesday that Trump’s insistence to other NATO countries seems to be working.

“Because as you just mentioned, after years of cutting defence budgets, NATO allies have now started to invest more,” Stoltenberg told Trump in an Oval Office meeting. “And by the end of next year, they will have added $US100 billion more into their defence budgets since you took office.”

“And that helps and it proves also that NATO is a strong alliance,” he added. “We have increased the readiness of forces. We have stepped up in our joint fight against terrorism. And we are investing more.”

Trump has made the US defence community and Congress anxious with his continuous criticism of NATO

In 2014, NATO came to an agreement that each member state would increase their own defence spending to 2% of their respective gross domestic product by 2024. According to NATO’s annual report, which was released in March, only seven of 29 member states have reached this target.

Trump has frequently lambasted NATO members for not hitting this 2% goal. Other presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama, also put pressure on NATO allies to increase defence spending. But Trump’s approach has been particularly aggressive and highly public, prompting critics to question the wisdom of scolding allies on the global stage.

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“Since [Trump] became president, everything that President Obama promised to the alliance such as rotational forces, pre-positioned equipment, and increased spending has all happened… It’s just so unhelpful when he’s kicking the most important allies in the arse publicly and doing things that are not helpful,” Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of the US Army in Europe, said of Trump and NATO in a recent interview.

“I never in my life imagined an American president would call into question Article 5,” Hodges added. “That’s unbelievable to me and it’s causing people to have to do a lot of extra work to explain ‘Don’t worry, we’re still committed, and we’re here.'”

Under Article 5, which is enshrined in NATO’s founding treaty, an attack against one NATO ally is considered as an attack against all allies.

The president questioned this logic in an interview last July, and has reportedly even considered withdrawing the US from NATO. In response to such reports, the House in January passed a bipartisan bill that would prohibit Trump from using federal funds to withdraw from NATO. The same month, a bipartisan group of Senators reintroduced a bill that would prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO without Senate approval.

Correspondingly, Stoltenberg’s invitation to speak before a joint meeting of Congress has been viewed as a rebuke of Trump and his rhetoric on the alliance. The address comes as NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary this week.

Stoltenberg has praised Trump for pressuring NATO allies to ramp up defence spending

Stoltenberg has praised Trump for his tough talk on NATO.

“[Trump’s] message on fairer burden sharing is having a real impact. By the end of next year, European Allies & Canada will have added $US100 [billion] to their defence spending,” the NATO secretary general tweeted on Monday.

Stoltenberg echoed this in his speech on Friday, stating, “NATO allies must spend more on defence. This has been the clear message from President Trump and this message is having a real impact. All allies have increased their defence spending. Before they were cutting billions and now they’re adding billions.”

Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of Eurasia Group, said remarks like this from Stoltenberg are “partially praise” but also a sign he’s “politely waiting Trump out.”

“Continued pressure from the US to get allies to up their defence commitments is necessary and it’s making a difference,” Bremmer told INSIDER.

Bremmer said when it comes to how Trump has affected the dynamic between the US and the issue is “less Trump policies than his personal orientation” and “his personal indifference to individual allies and his broader unilateralism.”

“This has hurt relationships with most NATO allies and undermines the alliance overall,” Bremmer said, adding that there’s “no question Stoltenberg is unhappy about that and wishes he could do something about it. But he can’t.”

“He’s certainly not going to change Trump,” Bremmer added. “So on that side, he’s politely waiting Trump out.”

Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, expressed similar sentiments and said Stoltenberg is following the example of his predecessors.

“It has long been the role of NATO secretary generals from Lord Ismay to Jens Stoltenberg: ‘Keep the Americans In.’ This is what Mr. Stoltenberg is doing 70 years later,” Conley told INSIDER.

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“The president at the moment views NATO’s increased defence spending as one of his personal foreign policy successes. NATO is an American foreign and security policy success,” Conley said. “The alliance is materially strong but the president has sown seeds of doubt about America’s enduring commitment to the alliance. This doubt will be there for the foreseeable future.”

By “challenging NATO so directly,” Trump has offered Congress a “powerful reminder” of how important NATO is, which “is what we are seeing today” via Stoltenberg’s speech, Conley added.

David Rothkopf, an international relations scholar and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, told INSIDER there’s “no question the dynamics between the US and NATO have been damaged seriously by Trump.”

“He attacked the alliance on the campaign trail, has undermined key bilateral relationships and supported nationalist and Russian anti-alliance objectives – like Brexit,” Rothkopf added.

Rothkopf said Stoltenberg is “flattering” Trump when he praises the president and “seeking to put a good face on things.”

“But behind the scenes European diplomats have told me the game is simply to ride this out and hope Trump is gone soon,” Rothkopf added. “And it is worth noting that many of the efforts that led to European increases in spending have predated Trump. And that his threats of further trade tensions will not help matters.”

‘[Trump’s] disdain for allies…and calling into question the collective defence commitment of Article 5 have all weakened alliance unity and solidarity’

Former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told INSIDER it’s clear Soltenberg understands the “importance to President Trump of claiming a win on NATO funding.”

“[Stoltenberg] has therefore emphasised the positive of Trump’s hammering of allies on doing more, and underplayed the negative,” Daalder said.

But the former US ambassador to NATO added that there’s “only so much you can do to massage the image through messaging” and also noted that NATO members began increasing defence spending back in 2014 – before Trump was president.

“The reality is that Trump’s deep antipathy to NATO and allies in general is long-lasting, going back at least 30 years,” Daalder said. “His disdain for allies, hammering on them to pay the US, and calling into question the collective defence commitment of Article 5 have all weakened alliance unity and solidarity.”

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