Unlikely Allies NATO Chief Finds a New Friend in Trump

A new alliance is being forged between NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. President Donald Trump. Both want more money for the alliance and for member countries to step up the fight against Islamic State. But not all member states are convinced.

Jens Stoltenberg: 'The security situation has changed.'

Jens Stoltenberg: 'The security situation has changed.'

By and

In Donald Trump's eyes, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was actually the head of an alliance that history had made superfluous. The new American president made clear during his election campaign that he considered NATO to be a Cold War relic - cumbersome, expensive and useless. But when Stoltenberg appeared at a joint press conference during a visit to the new U.S. leader in the White House, nary a word indicated any resentment over NATO. "I said it was obsolete. It is no longer obsolete," Trump said in a spectacular turnaround.

So what happened?

Stoltenberg chuckles at the question before fastening his seat belt. The Belgian air force passenger jet taxis onto the runway at the airport in Rome as it prepares to take off for Brussels. "We learn something new every day," he says. "Donald Trump and I discussed how NATO must further develop because the world has changed."

Above all, change means that the Europeans will have to increase their defense spending in the future - both Republican Trump and Social Democrat Stoltenberg are in agreement on the issue. In recent weeks, an alliance has formed between the two, very different men. The blustering U.S. president, who has little foreign policy experience, and the measured secretary-general from Norway are now pulling together, with both desiring more money for the alliance. Stoltenberg, 58, is now paying visits to European capitals in order to drum up the necessary funds.

In two weeks, Trump plans to travel to Europe for the first time as U.S. president, and it is no coincidence that one of his first stops on May 25 will be to the massive new NATO headquarters in Brussels. In addition to his demand for more money from other alliance members, Trump is also hoping NATO will take on a greater role in the fight against Islamic State (IS). He would like to see NATO join the U.S.-led coalition against the terrorist organization.

Stoltenberg has long been of the opinion that the era of peace dividends has passed, particularly given Russia's annexation of Crimea and the IS establishment of a "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq. But it was only with Trump's election that his demands have gained significant momentum. Ironically, the very man who until recently considered NATO to be superfluous is now one of Stoltenberg's closest allies.

'Vast Sums of Money'

One primary target of this new alliance is Germany, by far the strongest economy among NATO members in Europe. Trump has made it clear to Chancellor Angela Merkel that he believes Germany owes NATO "vast sums of money." Stoltenberg will visit Berlin on Thursday.

"We are not increasing our defense spending in order to do President Trump a favor," Stoltenberg says, leaning back in his leather seat. "We are doing exactly what we promised at the summit in Wales."

In response to Putin's annexation of Crimea, NATO member-state leaders agreed at a September 2014 summit, long before Trump's election, to increase their countries' defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) over the next 10 years . Since then, defense budgets have risen slowly in many NATO countries, but many of Stoltenberg's meetings bear little fruit, such as the one with Paolo Gentiloni in Rome, from which he is now returning. Italy's prime minister said many nice things about the alliance, but he was careful to avoid making any concrete pledges. For his part, Stoltenberg praised Italy as a "vital ally" - despite the fact that the country is still far from reaching the 2-percent target.

Stoltenberg would like to see that change. "What's important is maintaining the momentum that we have achieved in defense spending," says Stoltenberg. To that end, he wants to see NATO alliance members publicly reiterate their commitment to the 2-percent goal during their meeting in Brussels. The United States, though, has had enough of words, and Trump would like a firmer commitment. He wants to require NATO members to submit an annual accounting of their defense spending and that it be released publicly. The idea in this form has already been largely dismissed, but there are still plans for regular reports on the development of defense budgets.

Resistence in Berlin

Germany, in particular, isn't happy with the situation, as Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently tried to make clear to Stoltenberg. On a Thursday morning at the end of April, the two met for breakfast in a five-star hotel in Malta during a summit of European defense ministers. Their table was filled with croissants and silver coffee pots, but the seating arrangement made it look more like a stand-off. Von der Leyen took a seat directly across from Stoltenberg and both were flanked by advisers. Security guards stood at the doors with earpieces.

The meeting between the two was to focus on the upcoming NATO summit with Trump and on Germany's defense spending, but von der Leyen first wanted to talk about Canada. The German minister knows she can expect little understanding if Europe's economic superpower, of all countries, shirks on its obligation. Even though Germany's defense budget did increase by 8 percent last year, the country is still far from reaching the 2-percent target.

Von der Leyen pointed out that Canada is currently only spending about 1 percent of GDP on defense, only half the pledged amount. Of course, the Canadians are also providing most of the soldiers necessary for the rapid reaction force recently stationed in Latvia in order to protect NATO's flank against the Russian threat, which also must be factored in.

Von der Leyen wants to supplementTrump's plans for annual reporting with a so-called "activity list" that would cover aspects like the Canadian troop deployment and similar services that come in addition to defense budgets. She believes that, if calculated according to this methodology, Germany would look much better in an international comparison. Germany's military, after all, is a major supplier of troops to the alliance in missions from Afghanistan to Kosovo. It is also involved in European Union missions, like the one in Mali. Stoltenberg promised he would look into the idea. "If we can better measure activities, then I would be open to that," he said.

'Strong Challenges'

Stoltenberg understands the difficulties faced by politicians. He served an extended tenure as the prime minister of Norway and he knows that politicians would prefer to invest taxpayer money into schools and streets than to buy tanks and fighter jets. "I regret that we are in a situation in which we have to spend more money," he says. "But the security situation has changed." He says he finds it surprising that German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and chancellor candidate Martin Schulz, who, like Stoltenberg, are center-left Social Democrats, have made their anti-arms positions a major issue in this year's election campaign. In an admonishment to his party allies to not forget their own history, Stoltenberg says, referencing the NATO Double-Track Decision: "Defense and dialogue go together - that's the realization Social Democrats came to in the 1970s."

In contrast to Stoltenberg, the Americans have been considerably more assertive in an effort to ensure their president's upcoming Brussels visit is a success. Trump is under pressure domestically and a policy victory from Brussels could help. Especially "on the issue of NATO in the south," the alliance is "confronted with strong challenges for greater visibility," one NATO diplomat wrote in a cable back to his home country. In other words, Trump isn't just seeking money: He also wants to see increased engagement. At the recent summit of NATO ambassadors, the Americans made the issue official: They want NATO to formally join the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.

Some Europeans remain hesitant. The Germans and the French have argued that all NATO members are already involved in deployments against Islamic State. Germany, for example, has deployed Tornado aircraft to conduct air reconnaissance in Syria. Official NATO membership in the coalition, they argue, would change little and could even be harmful, handing the terrorists a pretext to brand the intervention as a Western crusade.

On the other hand, the demand from Washington opens the door to a possible deal. NATO could formally join the anti-IS operation, but member states would not be required to do more than they already are. In return, the U.S. would show lenience on the 2-percent target.

Stoltenberg is familiar with the sensitivities and he is trying to build bridges. "No one expects the participation of NATO soldiers in the Syrian civil war and it's also not up for debate," he says. But NATO troops have been training anti-IS fighters in Iraq since January and he could imagine increasing their number. "The training of local forces, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, is in my view one of the best weapons for fighting terror," he says. In addition, the alliance is also considering using its AWACs flights not just for reconnaissance, but also to better direct coalition aircraft over Syrian air space. "It's conceivable that we will rely more heavily on the AWACs aircraft above Turkey," Stoltenberg says.

A bit more of the same, in other words - and it seems doubtful whether it would be enough for Trump. And the Americans have even taken it upon themselves to provide visible evidence of how seriously NATO takes the war on terror. As a sort of reminder to the Europeans, the president plans to unveil a sculpture in front of the new NATO headquarters himself. It's made of metal ruins from the World Trade Center - a remnant of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


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