NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has a message for U.S. Republicans making election promises to slash Ukraine’s support: That will only empower China.
Stoltenberg pushed his point in an expansive interview with POLITICO this week, in which the military alliance’s chief made the case for a long-term American presence in Europe and a widespread boost in defense spending.
“The presence of the United States — but also Canada — in Europe, is essential for the strength and the credibility of that transatlantic bond,” Stoltenberg said.
Yet anxiety is coursing through policy circles that a more reticent U.S. may be on the horizon. The upcoming U.S. midterm elections could tip control of Congress toward the Republicans, empowering an ascendant, MAGA-friendly Republican cohort that has been pressing to cut back U.S. President Joe Biden’s world-leading military aid to Ukraine.
Stoltenberg warned that Kyiv’s recent battlefield gains would not have been possible without NATO allies’ support. And he appealed to the more strident anti-China sentiment that runs through both major U.S. political parties.
A victorious Russia, he said, would “be bad for all of us in Europe and North America, in the whole of NATO, because that will send a message to authoritarian leaders — not only Putin but also China — that by the use of brutal military force they can achieve their goals.”
Stoltenberg, however, expressed optimism that the U.S. would not soon vanish from Europe — or from Ukraine. Indeed, a contingent of more establishment Republicans has supported Biden’s repeated requests to send money and arms to Ukraine.
“I’m confident,” the NATO chief said, “that also after midterms, there will still be a clear majority in the Congress — in the House and in the Senate — for continued significant support to Ukraine.”
Difficult decisions ahead
The charged debate is the product of a troubling reality: Russia’s war in Ukraine appears likely to drag on for months as budgets tighten and economies wane.
In Washington, that discussion is intensifying ahead of elections slated for November 8. And a chorus of conservatives is increasingly reluctant to spend vast sums on aid to Ukraine. Since the war began, the U.S. has pledged to give Ukraine more than $17 billion in security assistance, well above what Europe has collectively committed.
Stoltenberg said that he is confident Washington will continue aiding Ukraine “partly because if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wins in Ukraine, that will be a catastrophe for the Ukrainians.”
But he also stressed the China connection at a moment when Beijing is top of mind for many American policymakers — including some of the same conservatives raising questions about the volume of assistance to Ukraine.
The Biden administration recently described China as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge” in its national security strategy.
And the document explicitly ranks China above Russia in the longer term: “Russia poses an immediate and ongoing threat to the regional security order in Europe and it is a source of disruption and instability globally but it lacks the across the spectrum capabilities of” China.
Still, the collision of Russia’s long war in Ukraine, domestic U.S. political pressures and the growing focus on Beijing are reinvigorating a long-standing burden-sharing debate within NATO.
In 2014, NATO allies agreed to “aim to move towards” spending 2 percent of their economic output on defense by 2024. With that deadline looming — and the recognition that military threats only seem to be rising — leaders are grappling with what comes next. Will they raise the target number? Will they word the spending goals differently?
“I expect that NATO allies will at the summit in Vilnius next year make a clear commitment to invest more in defense,” Stoltenberg said while noting that “it’s a bit too early to say” what precise language NATO allies will agree to.
NATO allies themselves have taken varying approaches to China, with some still adopting a much softer line than Washington.
Stoltenberg acknowledged these divergences. But he argued the alliance had made progress on confronting Beijing, emphasizing NATO’s decision earlier this summer to explicitly label China a challenge in its long-term strategy document.
It is “important for NATO allies to stand together and to address the consequences of the rise of China — and that we agree on, and that’s exactly what we are doing,” he said.
Yet while allies have agreed to “address” China’s rise, they haven’t figured out who should foot the bill for those efforts. Some U.S. lawmakers, academics and experts are advocating for Europe to take the lead in managing local security challenges so the U.S. can focus more on the Indo-Pacific.
Daniel Hamilton, a U.S. State Department official during the 1990s NATO enlargement wave, dubs it “greater European strategic responsibility.” This approach, added Hamilton, now a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University, would involve European allies providing, within 10 years, “half of the forces and capabilities” needed “for deterrence and collective defense against Russia.”
European allies, some experts argue, are simply too comfortable in their reliance on Washington.
“European members of NATO have over-promised and under-delivered for decades,” said Harvard University professor Stephen Walt, a leading international affairs scholar. Europeans, he said, “will not make a sustained effort to rebuild their own defense capabilities if they can count on the United States to rush to their aid at the first sign of trouble.”
Over the next decade, Walt added, “Europe should take primary responsibility for its own defense, while the United States focuses on Asia and shifts from being Europe’s ‘first responder’ to being its ‘ally of last resort.’”
Stoltenberg pushed back against such a strict division of labor.
Decoupling North America from Europe “is not a good model, because that will reduce the strength, the credibility of the bond between North America and Europe.”
He did, however, lean on NATO’s European allies — which will include most of the Continent west of Russia once Finland and Sweden’s memberships are approved — to keep upping their defense spending.
“I strongly believe that European allies should do more,” he said, adding that he has been “pushing hard” on the topic. “The good news,” he noted, “is that all allies and also European allies have increased and are now investing more.”
Still, simple math shows that Europe is not close to being self-sustaining on defense.
“The reality is that 80 percent of NATO’s defense expenditures come from non-EU allies,” Stoltenberg said. The alliance’s ocean-spanning, multi-continent layout also “makes it clear that you need a transatlantic bond and you need non-EU allies to protect Europe.”
“But most of all,” Stoltenberg stressed, “this is about politics — I don’t believe in Europe alone, I don’t believe in North America alone.”