NATO, the world’s largest defense alliance, is not “obsolete,” according to the former Norwegian prime minister leading it, Jens Stoltenberg. He’s had to be on the defensive himself this week, after more unexpected rumblings from the man moving into the White House on Friday, Donald Trump, but the unflappable Stoltenberg seems to be taking it all in stride.
Stoltenberg stressed that NATO, which Norway relies on for its own defense, is also in the midst of another major re-adaptation right now. “We’re carrying out the biggest strengthening of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” Stoltenberg told DN. “We’re placing new forces in the eastern portions of the alliance (bordering on Russia) and we are increasing our reaction abilities.”
Like many other top politicians, business leaders and heads of international organizations, Stoltenberg was in Davos, Switzerland this week to take part in the World Economic Forum, where speculation was running high over how Trump will behave and act as president of the United States. There’s been no lack of fear, loathing and sheer uncertainty over what will come after Trump’s inauguration on Friday.
Worried NATO members
Trump’s latest round of criticism directed at NATO, when he told The Times of London and Bild of Germany that NATO was “obsolete” and that its European members weren’t paying their fair share of NATO’s bills, was not well-received by the majority of NATO’s other member countries. Trump’s remarks came after he also has spoken far more highly of Russian President Vladimir Putin than he has of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and he also has suggested in his infamous use of social media that there’s a need for a new nuclear build-up.
It’s all been highly worrisome for members of an alliance that was created and built up to fend off Russia and its former Soviet Union after World War II, and, as DN noted, that was highly agitated by Putin’s invasion of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine.
Stoltenberg has thus suddenly had to all but justify NATO’s existence in the face of the criticism from the man who’ll now lead its single biggest member. Stoltenberg, who took on the job at NATO with a solid track record in Norway of being amiable but firm, also sees a need to reassure other NATO members while standing up to Russia.
He remains one of the first international leaders to speak with Trump after the November election results surprised almost everyone. “In that conversation, Donald Trump confirmed that the US will stand by all its obligations in NATO, and acknowledged that a strong NATO is important for the US,” Stoltenberg told DN. “Two world wars have taught us that peace and stability in Europe are important, not only for Europeans, but for Americans.”
US a beneficiary after Septenber 11, 2001
Stoltenberg also noted how the only time that NATO has actually triggered its important “Article Five” collective defense measure, on behalf of an individual member, was after the terrorist attacks on the US itself on September 11, 2001. That led to hundreds of thousands of European soldiers being sent to Afghanistan, where the US’ attackers were believed to be based.
“Many of those responding (to the US’ call for help) lost their lives in a military operation that was a direct response to the attacks against Americans,” Stoltenberg said. “That shows that NATO is important for both Europe and the US.”
As for Trump’s criticism that the US is covering more than its fair share of NATO’s expenses, that was one of Stoltenberg’s top priorities to address when he took over in 2014. He’s been urging European members to boost their defense spending ever since, long before Trump complained, and told DN that NATO is raising its defense fees for members. “Everyone understands that when tensions declined after the Cold War ended, defense expenses could decline,” Stoltenberg said. “But when tensions are rising (as they have been in recent years), then we all must invest more in our defense.”
Stoltenberg also noted how the US itself is boosting its military presence in Europe, with new brigrades in Germany and Poland and training exercises in the Baltic countries and, most recently, Norway as well. Russian leaders have predictably complained, viewing it as a provocation, while NATO members respond that Russia’s moves into Crimea and Ukraine were provocations as well.
While the world now waits to see whether President Trump will be less offensive and unpredictable than he was a presidential candidate, Stoltenberg claims he’s “looking forward to cooperate Trump” and, as always, the US’ military establishment. Norwegian officials are saying the same, despite lots of uncertainty and wariness over Trump in Norway. “I’m sure that the US will continue to stand by its security guarantees to NATO,” he told Germany’s Die Welt earlier this week. Stoltenberg has long had a reputation, meanwhile, for being highly likable. Now it will be important for Stoltenberg and Trump to get along as well.