If America Is First, Is NATO Second?

An interview with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg answers journalists' questions as he arrives to attend the 54th Munich Security Conference on Feb. 16. (Andreas Gebert/AFP/Getty Images)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg answers journalists' questions as he arrives to attend the 54th Munich Security Conference on Feb. 16. (Andreas Gebert/AFP/Getty Images)

At this year’s Munich Security Conference, tensions in the U.S.-European relationship were on full display. Top European officials slammed President Donald Trump’s “America first” vision, and leaders grappled with how to manage Russian aggression and other threats. Back in Washington, special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians for alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election was announced on Friday, the first day of the conference. The news prompted U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, in Munich for the event, to describe Russian interference as “incontrovertible,” followed by a rebuke on Twitter from Trump.

Amid the drama, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sat down on the sidelines of the conference for an interview with Foreign Policy’s diplomatic reporter, Robbie Gramer, to discuss U.S.-NATO relations under Trump, tensions with Russia, a new NATO mission in Iraq, and the deterioration in Turkey’s relations with the West. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Foreign Policy: President Donald Trump has hounded NATO members to boost their defense spending. Is NATO doing that?

Jens Stoltenberg: NATO has delivered a very good start. What we decided in 2014 was to stop the cuts and move toward spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. The cuts have stopped. We are increasing defense spending across Europe and Canada, and we are moving toward 2 percent.

In 2014, when we made the decision, only three nations met the 2 percent pledge. This year, it will be eight, and it will increase further in the years to come. So we are making progress. But we still have hard work. We still have a long way to go, but after the years of decline, we now see that European allies have turned a corner.

FP: In your personal conversations with Gen. McMaster and President Trump, have they expressed satisfaction with how NATO has responded to their requests to boost spending, or are they still not satisfied?

JS: They have said what I expect them to say: This is a good start, but we need more. And I totally agree with them. President Trump said the money is “pouring in,” referring to the increase of defense spending across Europe and Canada. But again, this is the beginning. This is a start. We didn’t promise to meet the 2 percent target the next year. We promised to move towards 2 percent within the decade, and we are moving.

More countries will meet the 2 percent target. So we are addressing burden-sharing. European allies are stepping up, both with more spending, but also with adding more troops to our collective defense in Europe. The United States is increasing their presence in Europe, and we welcome that very much. The U.S. reduced its military presence in Europe after the end of the Cold War; the last American battle tank left Europe in autumn 2013. Now, the U.S. is back with a armored brigade and with the more supplies, more equipment, and money for infrastructure.

FP: Many European allies were nervous when President Trump came into office. Do you worry about the future of the trans-Atlantic bond under Trump?

JS: President Trump has clearly stated that he’s committed to NATO and to the trans-Atlantic bond, not only in words, but also in deeds. The United States is now increasing their presence [in Europe], so I think actions speaks louder than the words.

Second, we have to remember that NATO is an alliance of 29 democracies with political leaders from different political backgrounds, with different views on many issues. But we have always been able to overcome those differences and agree on the core task of NATO: that we stand together and protect each other because that is in the interest of the United States, North America, and Europe. Look back at on NATO history: We had the Suez Crisis, the Iraq War — we had disagreements on many issues. But NATO has always been able to unite around [its] core tasks.

FP: You said NATO is an alliance of 29 democracies. But one NATO member, in particular, is turning away from democracy: Turkey. How concerned are you about Turkey in NATO, particularly given its tensions with Washington and Europe?

JS: Turkey is a key ally for several reasons, not least because of its strategic geographic location, bordering Iraq and Syria and also Russia in the Black Sea.

Turkish infrastructure, bases, airports have been extremely useful in the fight against ISIS. Turkey is also the NATO ally that has suffered, by far, the most terrorist attacks. They have legitimate security concerns, but we of course expect that they address them in a proportionate and measured way.

Turkey also suffered a failed coup in 2016, a bloody coup. The plotters bombed the parliament and killed many people. Those who are behind the failed coup attempt must be prosecuted based on the rule of law. The rule of law, democracy, and individual liberty are core values for NATO. I underline that in my meetings in many NATO capitals, including Ankara.

FP: But you said “29 democracies.” Do you still consider Turkey a democracy?

JS: Turkey is a NATO ally. There are elections in Turkey and we just expect Turkey to adhere to NATO’s core values.

FP: How would NATO respond if Russia did in the Baltics what it did in Ukraine? The “little green men” situation. Would NATO trigger Article 5 in that situation?

JS: First, we don’t see any threat against any NATO ally and therefore, I’m always careful speculating too much about hypothetical situations. But what I can say is that anything like what happened in Crimea and Ukraine would, of course, trigger a response from the whole alliance, because NATO is there to defend and protect all allies against any threat.

NATO’s core task is to protect all allies based on the idea, “One for all and all for one.” We deployed battlegroups for the first time to this part of Europe. The combat-ready battlegroups, which are multinational, send a very clear signal that NATO is there to protect [allies]. If any NATO ally is attacked, NATO is already there.

The purpose of our presence is not to provoke a conflict, but it is to prevent a conflict. That is how NATO, for almost 70 years, has preserved the peace in Europe by providing credible deterrence. We implemented the biggest reinforcement of collective defense since the end of the Cold War, with increased defense spending, a direct result of Russia’s aggressive actions. We’re making sure that nothing similar will ever happen to a NATO-allied country.

FP: NATO just recently announced a new training mission in Iraq. What will the mission entail? How big will the mission be, and when will it be deployed?

JS: We have some training activities in Iraq, which is deployed to Baghdad, including mobile training teams there. The plan now is to scale up these activities by establishing a training mission. It will provide us with a better footing for the whole operation, including access to common NATO resources.

We decided at the defense ministerial meeting this week to start planning, and the aim is to make final decisions at the NATO summit in July. We are looking to help Iraq with professionalizing their armed forces, building military schools, military academies, to train the trainers so they can in turn train soldiers themselves. We can also help them build and reforming their security infrastructure, including the Ministry of Defense and joint chief of staffs. I just met Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister, and he very much welcomed NATO’s efforts, what we do already and the plans to scale up. He asked for more, and we are now planning how to scale up the support for Iraq.

FP: NATO has said in the past it would trigger its Article 5 collective defense clause in response to a cyberattack. Does that threat still hold? What type of cyberattack would trigger that?

JS: A cyberattack can trigger Article 5 because we know that cyberattacks can be as harmful as kinetic attacks. Cyberattacks can cause human suffering, can destroy infrastructure, and can also undermine military capabilities. We have made it clear that if we really see these cyberattacks, then we could possibly trigger Article 5. We would never exactly define where the threshold is, because we won’t give that kind of information to potential adversaries. We are also doing a lot to strengthen our own cyber defenses.

FP: Some allies have expressed growing concern about Russian military buildup in the Arctic. How should NATO counter this? Does NATO have a role to play in the Arctic?

JS: NATO is in the Arctic. Half of my own country [Norway] is above the Arctic Circle. The Joint Force Command of the Norwegian forces is located north of the Arctic Circle. Most of the Norwegian military forces are north of the Arctic Circle. So NATO is in the Arctic already.

But, at the same time, we used to say that “in the High North, we have low tensions.” We see increased tensions in the North, but we have to continue to strive for lowering the tensions and build cooperation we have developed with Russia over decades. Even during the Cold War, we saw cooperation between NATO allies and the Soviet Union up in the north. So we have to be present, but in a proportionate, defensive way.

FP: Several German media outlets are reporting German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is favored to succeed you as NATO’s next secretary-general. Is this true?

JS: Ursula von der Leyen is a great political leader and a great defense minister. I appreciate working closely with her. My focus now is on the fact that I’m going to be secretary-general for almost three more years, so for me, it’s a bit early to start to speculate on who’s going to be my successor.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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