Donald Trump continues to claim credit for NATO’s decision to “change” its policy and focus more closely on the threat of terrorism. But the head of the world’s most powerful military alliance said in an interview that NATO’s policy hasn’t changed, and that the Republican presidential nominee is not influencing the alliance’s decisions.
“NATO has been fighting terrorism for many years,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Foreign Policy.
In denying that Trump prompted a new focus on terrorism, Stoltenberg also criticized the real estate tycoon’s assertion that he, as commander-in-chief, would not come to the defense of European NATO allies if they don’t contribute more to the alliance’s defense costs.
“Our collective defense guarantees are not conditional on defense spending,” Stoltenberg said. “They are absolute and that is why they’ve been so successful.”
Trump startled NATO officials early on in his presidential campaign by deriding the 28-member alliance as an “obsolete” relic of the Cold War. But in recent weeks, he has softened his criticisms, saying he would “work closely with NATO” because it has responded to his criticisms.
“I had previously said that NATO was obsolete because it failed to deal adequately with terrorism,” Trump said during his speech on counterterrorism in mid-August in Youngstown, Ohio. “Since my comments they have changed their policy and now have a new division focused on terror threats.”
The division Trump is referring to is a new high-level intelligence post NATO created to help combat terrorism. Stoltenberg said Trump’s remarks had nothing to do with the creation of the post, and noted the significant length of time it takes the consensus-based organization to make decisions of this nature.
“That was a decision that was taken a long time ago but is implemented now,” he said.
Beyond the creation of the post, Stoltenberg noted that NATO’s biggest military operation at the moment is in Afghanistan, a war that began as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“It’s the only time we have invoked our collective defense clause –Article 5– and that was a response to a terrorist attack in the United States,” he said. “Soldiers from Canada and Europe have lost their lives in Afghanistan.”
A spokesperson with the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Stoltenberg spoke to FP at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. The annual meeting comes as NATO faces a number of challenges, including a concerted anti-NATO messaging campaign by Russia and political turbulence inside post-coup Turkey, a NATO member since 1952.
The widespread purge of Turkish academics, journalists, judges and military officials in the aftermath of the failed July coup has raised concerns about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s commitment to rule of law. But Stoltenberg said his recent trip to the country alleviated his concerns.
“Rule of law, individual liberties and democracy are core values for NATO,” he said, noting that he stressed this in his meetings with Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister and the foreign minister. “They have assured me they will respect these values.”
But other Turkey watchers aren’t so confident in Ankara’s commitment to democratic governance.
‘NATO is first and foremost a security alliance,” said Andrew Bowen, a Middle East expert at the Wilson Center. “However, Turkey’s descent into deepening and potentially unstable authoritarianism raises genuine questions about its ability to be an effective partner long-term partner, but more broadly, whether Ankara’s values are anywhere near those of its other NATO partners.”