As a life-long politician, Jens Stoltenberg knows the temptation. It’s much more popular to spend money on infrastructure, health care and education than on defense.
A partisan of the left in his previous career, Mr. Stoltenberg slashed Norway’s defense budget when he served as the Scandinavian nation’s finance minister in the 1990s.
But times have changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The so-called peace dividend that emerged after the end of the Cold War has given way to new security tensions in Europe and the Middle East.
And Mr. Stoltenberg, now the secretary general of the NATO alliance, believes it’s time for Europe to start taking responsibility for its own security.
“After the end of the Cold War, it was right to cut defense spending,” Mr. Stoltenberg told Handelsblatt. “But if we reduce defense spending when tensions are going down, we also must be able to increase defense spending when tensions are going up - and now they are going up.”
Europe is much closer to the instability, to the violence, to the uncertainty, to the risks than the United States. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general
It’s an issue that has long frustrated the United States, the de facto leader of the alliance and by far the member state that spends the most on defense.
Washington, under both Democrat and Republican presidents, has for years repeatedly called for allies such as Germany to fulfill a NATO pledge to spend 2 percent of economic output on defense.
With U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House, however, the tone has grown tougher and tensions between Washington and its European allies have escalated to a level that rivals the 2003 Iraq war.
Mr. Trump called the alliance “obsolete” in an interview with the Times of London in January and after a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington last month, he sent a tweet saying Germany owes the United States money for not meeting defense spending targets.
Despite the tough talk from Washington, Mr. Stoltenberg said he is confident that the United States is fully committed to the alliance.
“This is not only in words but also in deeds because they are increasing the U.S. presence in Europe now,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “We had a gradual decrease in U.S. presence in Europe after the Cold war and now for the first time it is increasing again.”
As the U.S. increases its military presence in Europe, Mr. Stoltenberg has joined Washington in calling for European member states to meet their NATO obligations.
While the debate has largely focused on the Trump administration’s demands, Mr. Stoltenberg believes that boosting defense spending is in the interest of Europe which faces security challenges from an assertive Russia and terrorism emanating from the wars in Syria and Iraq.
“This is not just about pleasing the United States, this is about the security of Europe,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “Europe is much closer to the instability, to the violence, to the uncertainty, to the risks than the United States.”
And in the midst of that uncertainty, Britain's decision to leave the European Union has left some questioning whether or not tensions between Brussels and London could spill over into NATO. But Mr. Stoltenberg believes NATO will only become more important in the post-Brexit era.
“What I can say is that so far we have not seen any negative impact on the cooperation between European-NATO allies caused by the Brexit decision,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “There has been more focus on E.U.-NATO cooperation, knowing that NATO-E.U. cooperation becomes even more important.”
In effort to boost such cooperation, the alliance is working on individually tailored plans to help the member states meet their defense obligations, Mr. Stoltenberg said. Germany, for its part, has already promised to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024. Currently, it spends about 1.2 percent on defense.
Even gradually increasing the defense budget is politically controversial in a nation that reflexively shuns military power. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has criticized the projected increases as “completely unrealistic.”
Mr. Stoltenberg, for his part, politely reminded Berlin that Germany spent much more on defense in the past.
“European allies, including Germany, spent more than two percent on defense during the Cold War,” he said. “So we have been there before, and nobody expects those allies which are significantly below 2 percent to reach it within a year or two.”
Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt's Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]