Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a research fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars Program at Adelphi University and senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter @jonathancristol. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Wednesday, just a day before NATO’s 70th anniversary, the secretary general of the organization, Jens Stoltenberg, gave a clear, concise and rousing speech to a joint session of the United States Congress. Stoltenberg, whose term was recently extended to 2022, is the first NATO Secretary General to address Congress. The theme of his speech is best described in his own words: “It’s good to have friends.”
The invitation, jointly extended by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came as NATO faces its greatest threat: An American president who seemingly trusts Vladimir Putin more than his own intelligence community and who sees US alliances as business opportunities. But Stoltenberg showed that, unlike the President, he won’t let Russia off the hook so easily, while acknowledging that the costs and benefits of the partnership are more nuanced than a balance sheet.
Stoltenberg needed to use this highest of profile venues to call out Russia’s military aggression and the overt and covert malign activities that Trump usually whitewashes. And he did so quite clearly: “We see a pattern of Russian behavior, including a massive military build-up from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Black Sea to the Baltic; the use of a military-grade nerve agent in the United Kingdom; support for Assad’s murderous regime in Syria; consistent cyber-attacks on NATO Allies and partners, targeting everything from Parliaments to power grids; sophisticated disinformation campaigns; and attempts to interfere in democracy itself.”
Ironically, opposition to Putin unites the alliance, with the notable exception of Turkey, while Trump works tirelessly to divide it.
Fortunately, the US Congress is one body that doesn’t need convincing of NATO’s importance. In January, the House voted 357 - 22 to prohibit federal funds from being used to withdraw the United States from the organization. But while Trump could not withdraw from NATO without Congressional approval, if he were to publicly declare that the US will not act to defend its NATO partners, it would be a withdrawal in all but name. Perhaps this was in part why Stoltenberg felt the need to note Trump’s concern that allied nations are not pulling their weight and emphasize that he takes the burden-sharing issue seriously. “NATO allies must spend more on defense. This is the clear message from President Trump. And that message is having a real impact,” he said.
Trump and Stoltenberg do have a shared interest in getting allies to pay more – though Trump appears to think the allies pay the United States, while Stoltenberg realizes they need to increase their own defense spending.
The President is correct to emphasize that NATO allies should do more to provide for their own defense, but he was absolutely wrong when he said that, “Many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money [for NATO].” These allies have made non-binding pledges to increase their own defense spending to 2% of their own GDP by 2024.
No matter how many times Trump might insist otherwise, they haven’t yet failed to meet their pledge. And as Stoltenberg rightly mentioned, over the last year, all NATO allies have increased their defense spending. To Trump’s credit, earlier this month he acknowledged these contributions, saying to Stoltenberg in a joint press conference, “I would like you to extend my thanks to all of the Allies. They have really put up a lot more money than they have in the past.”
Financials aside, Stoltenberg made clear the value of NATO to the United States. He pointed out that our allies provide “tens of thousands of intelligence personnel and cyber experts.” He explained that NATO and America have fought together in Afghanistan, worked together to train Iraqi forces, brought peace to the Balkans together, and work jointly as part of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
But the secretary general did not only focus on material gains and use the language of “sovereign right” and “national interest” to appeal to President Trump. He also emphasized the NATO allies’ shared values that the American public can appreciate: That “there is no higher cause than freedom” and that the Atlantic is not a barrier, “rather a great blue bridge to new lands and new possibilities.” It is certainly a lovely sentiment.
After all, who prefers isolation to working with partners? Who prefers physical barriers to human connection?