“I worked with former President Trump for the four years he was president,” Stoltenberg told POLITICO, when Trump repeatedly threatened to leave the alliance as he thundered about NATO allies failing to keep up with defense spending pledges.
The NATO chief also pointed to the traditional bipartisan support for NATO in Congress, something he said he witnessed on Tuesday while meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Stoltenberg also points out that Trump’s criticism of NATO wasn’t really aimed at the alliance, but at individual countries that have failed to live up to the 2014 pledge to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense by 2024. “It’s important to listen,” he said, because the criticism from Trump “is not a criticism of NATO not investing enough in NATO.”
The comments came immediately after the NATO leader made a pitch to conservatives in Washington that supporting Ukraine and re-arming Europe is good for America.
“NATO is a good deal for the United States,” Stoltenberg said at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank closely aligned with Trump.
Stoltenberg’s trip to D.C. comes at the start of a tumultuous year for the alliance, Ukraine, and American domestic politics, with major questions hanging over those relationships and their future together.
His speech at Heritage reflects the uncertainty Europe is feeling over the U.S. political scene with the unpredictable Trump potentially reoccupying the Oval Office, making this particular think tank an essential stop.
Even though support for Ukraine is strong in some Republican circles, Trump has been pushing Congress to walk away from a plan to fund Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan due to a clash over border policy.
Stoltenberg’s remarks were an effort to tie multiple issues together that concern U.S. lawmakers, making the case that no issue — China, Russia, migration — exists by itself.
“China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea are increasingly aligned,” Stoltenberg said. “Together, they subvert sanctions and pressure, weaken the U.S. dollar-based international financial system, fuel Russia’s war in Europe, and exploit challenges to our societies, such as terrorism, disruptive technologies, or migration.”
In his opening remarks, Heritage President Kevin Roberts made clear that Stoltenberg had some convincing to do. “Until the [U.S.] border is at least as secure as it was a few years ago, we cannot support sending U.S. tax dollars overseas to protect” a foreign border in Ukraine.
Roberts also criticized NATO countries for not living up to spending pledge. Only 11 of the 31 member states reach the 2 percent GDP threshold, with major countries Germany, France, Turkey, Italy and Spain still falling short.
But Stoltenberg said that this year “at least half” will hit the mark, which is “a totally different world than we were in a few years ago.”
The NATO leader didn’t just come to rebut critics, however. He also arrived with a story to tell.
“NATO creates a market for defense sales,” he said, noting that member states have purchased $120 billion worth of weapons from U.S. defense companies over the past two years, including 600 F-35 fighters by 2030.
“From Arizona to Virginia, Florida to Washington state, American jobs depend on American sales to defense markets in Europe and Canada,” he said.
That line of thinking is similar to the message being touted by the White House:
supporting Ukraine is good for the American economy. U.S. manufacturers build weapons that are sent to European capitals, which are looking to restock after donating their machinery to Ukraine.
Stoltenberg also noted that by share of GDP, most European countries provide more military aid to Ukraine than Washington does.
“All allies have increased defense investments” since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, adding $450 billion in domestic defense investments across the alliance.
Stoltenberg also pushed back at the notion that Europe isn’t pulling its weight in Ukraine. “Since the outbreak of the war, the United States has provided around $75 billion,” he said. “Other allies and partners have provided over $100 billion, and measured as a share of GDP, most allies provide more than the United States.”
He called the war in Ukraine “a war of attrition” that will require European and American defense industries to ramp up production, since “we have seen some serious gaps” in manufacturing of munitions.
Just this week, the U.S.
sent new longer-range munitions to Ukraine that will allow Kyiv to strike Russian targets dozens of miles behind the front lines.
Some Republicans have criticized U.S. aid to Ukraine as a waste of money and resources that could be funneled to the Indo-Pacific. But NATO has taken pains to signal to Washington since the Trump administration it has supported the U.S. desire to shift focus to the Indo-Pacific.
“We must organize ourselves for enduring competition with China,” Stoltenberg said, adding that since Trump began pushing shifting U.S. priorities toward the Indo-Pacific in 2017, “NATO has gone a long way in helping European allies fully appreciate the challenge posed by China.”