NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s message to U.S. Republicans vowing to end support for Ukraine: This is only good for China.
Stoltenberg pushed the point in a wide-ranging interview with POLITICO this week, where the alliance chief made the case for a prolonged US presence in Europe and a massive increase in defense spending.
“The presence of the United States – but also Canada – in Europe is important for the strength and integrity of that transatlantic link,” Stoltenberg said.
But worries are brewing in policy circles that a more conservative US may be on the horizon. The upcoming US midterm elections could tip Congress against Republicans, giving power to a MAGA-friendly group of Republicans pushing US President Joe Biden to cut world-leading military aid to Ukraine.
Stoltenberg warned that Kiev’s success on the battlefield could not be achieved without the support of NATO allies. And he appealed to a stronger anti-China sentiment in both major US political parties.
“It will be bad for all of us in NATO, in Europe and North America, because it will send a message to the rulers – not only Putin, but also China – that they can achieve their goals through the use of brutality,” said a victorious Russia.
But Stoltenberg expressed hope that the US won’t disappear from Europe – or Ukraine – any time soon. In fact, a number of more established Republicans have backed Biden’s repeated calls to send money and weapons to Ukraine.
“I am confident that, even after the midterms, there will still be a clear majority in Congress – in the House and the Senate – of continued significant support for Ukraine,” the NATO chief said.
Difficult decisions ahead
The impeachment dispute is the result of a troubling reality: Russia’s war in Ukraine looks set to drag on for months as its budget tightens and its economy shrinks.
That discussion is intensifying ahead of the Nov. 8 election in Washington. And a bunch of conservatives are willing to spend more money on Ukraine. Since the start of the war, the US has pledged more than $17 billion in security aid to Ukraine, more than Europe combined.
Stoltenberg said he is confident that Washington will continue to help Ukraine “in part because [Russian President Vladimir] If Putin wins in Ukraine, that will be a huge disaster for Ukrainians.
But he emphasized China’s ties at a time when Beijing is a top concern for many U.S. policymakers — including some conservatives who raise questions about the amount of aid to Ukraine.
The Biden administration recently described China as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge” in its national security strategy.
And the document clearly puts China ahead of Russia in the long run: “Russia poses an immediate and persistent threat to regional security in Europe and is a source of unrest and instability globally, but lacks China’s overall capabilities.”
Still, Russia’s protracted war on the Ukraine conflict, domestic U.S. political pressure and increased focus on Beijing are reinvigorating the longstanding burden-sharing debate within NATO.
In the year In 2014, NATO partners agreed to “move forward” by spending 2 percent of their economic output on defense by 2024. With that deadline approaching — and knowing that military threats are mounting — leaders are grappling with what comes next. Do you increase the target number? Do they articulate spending goals differently?
“I expect NATO partners to make a clear commitment to invest more in defense at next year’s meeting in Vilnius,” Stoltenberg said, adding that it was too early to say the exact language NATO partners would agree on.
NATO allies themselves have taken different approaches to China, with some still taking a softer line than Washington.
Stoltenberg acknowledges these differences. But he argued that the alliance had made progress in confronting Beijing, which earlier this summer emphasized NATO’s decision to challenge China in its long-term strategy document.
“It’s important for NATO allies to stand together and address the consequences of China’s rise – and that’s what we agreed on and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
But while allies have agreed to “restrain” China’s growth, they haven’t figured out who should foot the bill for those efforts. Some US lawmakers, academics and experts advocate that Europe focus more on the Indo-Pacific to take the lead in managing regional security challenges.
During the wave of NATO expansion in the 1990s, US State Department official Daniel Hamilton called it “Europe’s major strategic liability”. Hamilton, now a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University, added that this approach would give European allies “about half the forces and capabilities” they need to “defend and defend Russia together” within 10 years.
Some experts say European allies are too comfortable relying on Washington.
“Europe’s NATO members have been under-promising for decades,” said Harvard University professor Stephen Walt, a leading international affairs scholar. If Europeans can count on the United States to rush to their aid at the first sign of trouble, they won’t be constantly scrambling to rebuild their own defense capabilities, he said.
In the coming decade, Walt added, “Europe must take primary responsibility for its own defense, while the United States focuses on Asia and moves from being Europe’s ‘first responder’ to being the ‘ally of last resort.’
Stoltenberg pushed back against such a strict division of labor.
Separating North America from Europe is not a good model because it reduces the strength and integrity of the bond between North America and Europe.
But he is leaning on NATO’s European allies – which include most of western Russia after the accession of Finland and Sweden – to keep up their defense spending.
“I firmly believe that European partners should do more,” he said, “pushing hard” on the topic. “The good news is that all partners and European partners have stepped up and are now able to invest more,” he said.
Still, a simple calculation shows that Europe is not close to being self-sufficient in defense.
“The reality is that 80 percent of NATO’s defense spending comes from non-EU partners,” Stoltenberg said. The EU’s ocean-wide, multi-continental position also makes it clear that “you need transatlantic links and non-EU partners to protect Europe.”
“But above all, this is about politics – I don’t believe only in Europe, I don’t believe only in North America,” Stoltenberg stressed.