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Stoltenberg’s ascension came at an unstable time for the military alliance. By October 2014, Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula was only months old, and the alliance’s years-long military presence in Afghanistan was winding down. In 2019, Russia’s hold on Crimea remains firm, the situation in Afghanistan remains uncertain, and new challenges for the alliance have emerged: the crisis in northeast Syria, a rising China, and growing threats surrounding cybersecurity and climate change.
And then there are the internal divisions among NATO members themselves, which, for the purposes of this gathering, have been under particular scrutiny. Already, Trump has criticized Macron for his “brain death” remarks; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Ankara would oppose NATO’s plan for defense of the Baltics if the alliance failed to recognize organizations Turkey deemed to be terrorists; and the host, Britain, is worried that the American leader will wade into its domestic politics, ahead of next week’s election. (Stoltenberg, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Stoltenberg’s job, in effect, is “like herding cats,” Egeland said, noting that while the secretary-general must represent NATO’s policies, he also has to consider the constraints placed on NATO leaders as well. “All international policies are … informed by the domestic policies, so it will be tough.”
Though European states were keenest to keep Stoltenberg in place, it also speaks to the Norwegian’s leadership and respect within NATO that the United States agreed to have him stay on. Even Trump, who is not shy about criticizing the alliance and its members, appears to have been won over.
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Stoltenberg has put a lot of work into reassuring Trump that the United States’ allies were increasing their military expenditures toward the goal of 2 percent of GDP a year on defense—a persistent stipulation of American presidents but one Trump has forcefully demanded, often in undiplomatic terms. During a 2017 trip to the United States, the NATO leader even gave an interview to Fox News crediting Trump’s pressure for increasing European countries’ military spending by $100 billion. On that same trip, the American president declared NATO was “no longer obsolete.”
Following a bilateral breakfast meeting in London yesterday, Trump lauded Stoltenberg for doing “a very good job in running NATO” and bringing the alliance together. He even appeared to attribute his change of heart toward the alliance to Stoltenberg.
“When I came in, I was angry at NATO,” Trump told reporters in London, saying that the pair had worked together to increase how much other countries were spending on their militaries by $130 billion, an apparent reference to the rise in defense expenditure over the past five years.
At one point, referring to Stoltenberg, the U.S. president said, “I think he is doing a fantastic job; I am a big fan.”