Jens Stoltenberg: A stronger Nato means a stronger Europe

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on what a European defence union would mean for the alliance, the implications of Donald Trump and why it's time member states step up their defence spending.

Jens Stoltenberg | Photo credit: Press Association

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

06 Dec 2016

The Secretary General of Nato has thrown his weight behind growing calls for the alliance's allies to contribute more to Europe's defence. Jens Stoltenberg says he agrees with US President-elect Donald Trump that Europe will have to pay more for its own defence. 

Trump's previous apparent ambivalence about the Nato alliance has sparked concern among some European allies. Germany's defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen described Trump's presidential win as a "huge shock" and has asked him for assurances on his commitment to Nato.

But, speaking to this magazine, Stoltenberg agrees with Trump that Europe must pay its dues, saying, "Yes, I would like to see a bigger commitment to spend more on defence."


He adds, "That is why I have underlined the importance of our Nato allies reversing the trend to cut defence spending. This is not going to happen overnight but, yes, it is something where I want to see Nato allies make a start."

He cites, as an example, Germany - Europe's biggest economy - which he says "is on track" to meet Nato's two per cent defence spending target.

The alliance wants countries to spend at least two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence needs as required. But this year, only five countries - the United States (at 3.61 per cent), Greece, the UK, Estonia and Poland - are meeting Nato's two percent benchmark.

Despite recent defence spending increases in several countries, including Latvia and Lithuania, most of their allies don't even come close to the two percent mark. Canada, for example, is spending 0.99 per cent of its GDP on defence. Germany is spending 1.19 per cent, Italy 1.11 per cent and Spain 0.91 per cent.

Contrast this with 1985, the height of the Cold War, when West Germany spent 3.3 per cent, Italy 2.7 per cent and Canada 2.2 per cent, while Greece spent a whopping 7.1 per cent of its GDP on the military. 

The US financial contribution to Nato heavily outweighs other allies', accounting for 70 per cent of Nato's defence spending. Trump has indicated that under his presidency, America may refuse to come to the aid of a Nato ally that has not "paid its fair share."

EU defence spending was the subject of a resolution drafted by Estonian Liberal MEP Urmas Paet and adopted by Parliament at last month's plenary. It says member states should dedicate at least two per cent of GDP to defence.

In July, Trump raised concerns over whether he, as President, would automatically allow US forces to defend Nato members if they came under attack. Asked explicitly whether the US would come to the aid of Baltic nations that are threatened by Russia, Trump responded: "If they fulfil their obligations to us, the answer is yes."

It isn't the first time the Americans have made such calls: last year, the secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, used a Brussels speech to urge an increase in spending by all Nato members, calling on each to share the burden of tackling a whole range of threats, from Russian "aggression" and Isis to Chinese cyberspace hackers and health crises such as Ebola.

On the spending issue, Stoltenberg, a former Prime Minister of Norway, said, "We in Europe have to step up our contributions and I am confident that Nato allies will do that. However, I am happy to say that after years of cuts, we are now seeing a reversal of this and allies are now starting to increase spending on defence."

Many European countries were alarmed by Trump's comments earlier in the election campaign that if Russia attacked a Nato member, he would consider whether the targeted country had met its defence commitments before providing military aid. 

Even so, Stoltenberg still believes Trump remains a "big fan" of Nato, "as all previous US presidents have been."

He adds, "America has given rock solid support to Nato for many decades and I am certain and absolutely confident that this will continue because a strong Nato is good for both Europe and the US."

He pointedly says that the only time the alliance has invoked its collective defence clause was after the attacks on New York and Washington and that all allies had made a "solemn", "absolute" and "unconditional" commitment to defend each other.

The veteran Social Democrat is Nato's 13th Secretary General. Stoltenberg was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's choice to lead the alliance, often regarded as the main instrument for keeping America in Europe.

Stoltenberg says, "What Donald Trump has done is to point to the importance of more balanced burden sharing on defence spending. But this is what President Barack Obama - and Nato itself - has been saying and it's a message I fully support."

He says that while latest forecasts suggest an-ever upward trend in defence spending, "there is still a long way to go because some member states are still far off meeting the two per cent target. In a world that is becoming a more dangerous place, we need to invest more in defence. 

"But when I meet the President-elect, I will tell him that Nato's European allies are investing more in our collective defence. I think Nato members are serious about this and we should be inspired by the progress we are making in this area."

Asked if he was surprised by Trump's victory, the Secretary General says, "Just as Nato is an alliance of democracies, the US is a democracy. Americans have elected their new President and that is something I respect."

He adds, "Of course, one of the strongest things about a democracy is that you do not know the outcome of an election - that is one of its strengths."

Stoltenberg is a former economist and was Minister of industry and energy in Norway in 1993 before moving to finance in 1996. In 2000, aged 40, he became Prime Minister for the first time. His Labour government lasted less than two years, suffering at the polls for its efforts to reform the welfare state. When he returned to the post in 2005, it was as head of a coalition with the Socialist Left and Centre parties, which was returned again in 2009.

Stoltenberg gives qualified support to the idea of a European defence union, an initiative enthusiastically promoted by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Proposals include the creation of an EU military HQ, with medical aid and logistics capabilities, possibly in Brussels, that would command EU military and civilian missions. 

Dubbed by some as a 'European army,' the plans are opposed by some member states, including Britain, which says it will drain away finite resources when Nato already has its military command centre, also in Belgium.

But Stoltenberg says, "I believe this could strengthen European defence, something I welcome, but I do agree that it must be done in a way that does not compete with Nato but, rather, is complimentary to what Nato does."

He adds, "Contrary to what has been said, this is not about creating a European army or something that will compete with Nato but, rather, something that will strengthen the transatlantic relationship and the existing bonds between alliance members." He notes, "A stronger Nato means a stronger Europe."

On the current situation in Turkey, Stoltenberg calls for the Erdogan regime to "respect" the rule of law in dealing with those behind the botched coup attempt earlier this year. Opponents of the regime, including academics and journalists, have been imprisoned since the failed coup, triggering fresh fears about the state of human rights in Turkey.

On this, Stoltenberg says, "Turkey is the Nato ally most affected by what is happening in Syria. Those behind the coup must be held responsible for their actions but this has to be done in a way that respects the rule of law and democratic values."

He says, "In times of uncertainty as we live in now, with the turmoil and violence that we see in Iraq and Syria, but also a more assertive Russia in the east, Nato is as important as ever and therefore I welcome that we see a strengthening of the cooperation within Nato and increased defence spending across Europe and Canada.

So I am absolutely certain that Nato will continue to be the bedrock of our security."

He welcomes the recent decision of EU foreign Ministers to strengthen European defence "because that will be important, both for Europe, the EU and for our transatlantic bond."

On the thorny issue of Russia, the official says, "In general I believe that is important that we stay calm and cool-headed, and that we sit down and find ways to avoid escalating tensions and continue to talk with Russia to address different issues, not least risk reduction transparency related to increased military activity close to our borders and Nato will continue to do so."

Stoltenberg adds, "The message from Nato has been that we want dialogue with Russia. Russia is our biggest neighbour, Russia is there to stay and especially when tensions run high, especially when we face many different security challenges, it is important to have dialogue. That is Nato's message and there is no contradiction between strong defence and political dialogue."

Turning to cooperation between the EU and Nato, the Secretary General points out that in July, he signed a joint declaration with European Council President Donald Tusk and Juncker and that he wants to see this declaration implemented "in many different areas", including maritime cooperation and the development of capabilities in Nato and the EU.

Looking to the future, he declared optimism about the long-term viability of the alliance, saying, "A stronger Nato-EU cooperation will also strengthen the European defence."


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