Troubled by Russia, Stoltenberg pledges unity in Congress as NATO turns 70

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (C) delivers an address to a joint meeting of the US Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 03 April 2019. [EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO]

“It’s good to have friends,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the US Congress in Washington on Wednesday (3 April), making a case for the survival of the transatlantic alliance.

“NATO has been good for Europe but NATO has also been good for the United States,” the former Norwegian prime minister said to applause, addressing a joint session of the House and Senate to commemorate NATO’s founding in Washington 70 years ago.

Stoltenberg reminded US lawmakers that NATO “has not lasted for seventy years out of a sense of nostalgia or of sentiment,” but “because it is in the national interest of each and every one of our nations.”

The head of NATO is the first leader of an international organisation invited to speak before a joint session of Congress.

Making an impassioned defence of what he called “the most successful alliance in history,” Stoltenberg glossed over the differences that have arisen since US President Donald Trump took office in 2017.

“NATO allies must spend more on defence – this has been the clear message from President Trump and this message is having a real impact,” said Stoltenberg, a statement that drew US Vice President Mike Pence, seated behind him, to his feet.

Washington has alarmed European allies by repeatedly saying NATO members, and especially Germany, need to spend more on defence and ease the burden on the United States.

The Congress invitation to Stoltenberg was widely interpreted as a message to Trump that there is bipartisan support for NATO among US lawmakers. Earlier this year, they passed legislation seeking to prevent any US president from leaving the alliance without Congressional approval.

In February, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a bipartisan delegation to Brussels, where they sought to reassure European allies that differences over Trump’s policies were mere “family squabbles” and that transatlantic ties remained strong.

European allies are more concerned about Trump’s perceived lack of commitment to Article 5, the Alliance’s mutual defence clause that stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all of them.

“We must overcome our differences now because we will need our alliance even more in the future. We face unprecedented challenges – challenges no one nation can face alone,” Stoltenberg said.

The NATO chief also warned of the threat posed by “a more assertive Russia.”

“NATO has no intention of deploying land-based nuclear missiles in Europe,” Stoltenberg said. “But NATO will always take the necessary steps to provide credible and effective deterrence.”

In his anniversary speech, Stoltenberg also called on Russia to return to compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), from which Trump plans to withdraw the US this summer.

The former pact between the US and what was then the Soviet Union required both blocs to eliminate nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.

But the Trump administration recently decided to quit the agreement, saying it made “no sense” to adhere to it when Russia allegedly violated the treaty with a newly developed missile system – a step that has caused concerns over a new Cold-War style arms race.

“We do not want a new arms race. We do not want a new Cold War. But we must not be naive. An agreement that is only respected by one side will not keep us safe,” said Stoltenberg.

He pointed to measures NATO had taken in recent years to beef up its defence capabilities against Russia, citing the 2014 annexation of Crimea as well as its support for the Assad regime in Syria.

“We do all of this, not to provoke a conflict, but to prevent conflict and to preserve peace. Not to fight but to deter. Not to attack but to defend,” Stoltenberg said, adding that “there is no contradiction between the defense and dialogue. We do not want to isolate Russia. We strive for a better relationship with Russia.”

On Thursday (4 April) Stoltenberg will lead a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, hosted by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. NATO member states are set to discuss relations with Russia and Black Sea security, the fight against terrorism and burden sharing.

Stoltenberg’s comments on Russia come at a time when Turkey seems to be drifting away from the US and NATO while getting closer to Russia. Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that it was halting the delivery of parts for F-35 fighter jets to Turkey because Ankara is pursuing plans to buy S-400 missile defense systems from Russia.

“Turkey must choose,” said Vice President Mike Pence speaking at a separate NATO anniversary event on Wednesday (3 April). “Does it want to remain a critical partner in the most successful military alliance in history, or does it want to risk the security of that partnership by making such reckless decisions that undermine our alliance?”

Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, who spoke at the same event, said Ankara will not back out of the purchase. “It’s a done deal,” he said. “Turkey doesn’t have to choose between Russia and any others, and we don’t see our relationship with Russia as an alternative to others.”

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