Nato chief takes jab at Trump over 'America First'

US has gained as much as European nations from alliance, he says in speech to Congress

WASHINGTON • Nato's chief has delivered a subtle rebuke of President Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy in a speech to the US Congress, as the alliance's 70th anniversary was marked more by tensions roiling the military bloc than by signs of unity.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, appearing at the invitation of congressional leaders on Wednesday, argued that the US has benefited as much from the 29-member alliance as have European nations. He cited how Nato partners came to the aid of the US after the Sept 11 attacks, continue to fight alongside US troops in Afghanistan, and are members of the coalition to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.

"Nato has been good for Europe, but Nato has also been good for the United States," Mr Stoltenberg said to applause from the lawmakers. "This has made the United States stronger, safer and more secure."

Despite the calls for unity, fissures in the alliance appeared to widen throughout the day. US Vice-President Mike Pence unleashed unusually frank criticism of Germany for not spending enough on defence and for moving forward with plans to build a gas pipeline from Russia.

"It is simply unacceptable for Europe's largest economy to continue to ignore the threat of Russian aggression," he said at a conference celebrating Nato's anniversary in Washington. "It's also wrong for Germany to become dependent on Russian energy."

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reaffirmed his government's plans to buy Russian missile defence system S-400, ignoring US warnings that Turkey could get cut out of the F-35 jet programme for which it helps to build parts.

Mr Cavusoglu threw a jab at the alliance, of which Turkey has been a member since 1952, saying Nato is not "capable enough" of protecting Turkey's airspace. "S-400 is a done deal - we will not step back from this," he said.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg addressing the US Congress in Washington on Wednesday, with US Vice-President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi looking on. Mr Stoltenberg cited how Nato partners came to the aid of the US after the Sep
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg addressing the US Congress in Washington on Wednesday, with US Vice-President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi looking on. Mr Stoltenberg cited how Nato partners came to the aid of the US after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, continue to fight alongside US troops in Afghanistan, and are members of the coalition to defeat ISIS. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The US has said the Russian missile defence system was designed to shoot down American and allied aircraft, including Lockheed Martin's F-35, and that Turkey's inclusion in the programme is at risk.

This week, the US delayed delivery of two F-35 jets to help train Turkish pilots at an Arizona base.

Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan has called Turkey's planned purchase of the S-400 "incompatible" with the sale of F-35s, and US officials have said they are concerned that sensitive F-35 technology designed to evade such a system could be compromised and used to improve the Russian air defence system.

Mr Cavusoglu defended Turkey's cooperation with Russia on matters including the war in Syria. "We need to work together and on Syria and other files we have been working together. Turkey is supporting the dual-track policy of Nato towards Russia - deterrence and dialogue."

Mr Stoltenberg was far more critical of Russia in his speech to Congress. The Nato alliance was created to counter Russia's predecessor, the Soviet Union, after World War II. He hammered Russia for violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and again for its annexation of Crimea. "Russia has deployed new missiles in Europe," he said.

Countering Russian claims that the US has violated the Cold War-era treaty, he added: "There are no new American missiles in Europe, but there are new Russian missiles."

His invitation to speak to Congress was seen as a bipartisan jab at Mr Trump and his foreign policy.

Mr Trump has recently moderated his criticism of the bloc, saying during a meeting with Mr Stoltenberg on Tuesday that they were "committed to ensuring that Nato can address the full range of threats" that it faces. At the same time, Mr Trump continued his focus on the spending imbalance, saying "we really cannot rely on one nation to defend all".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2019, with the headline 'Nato chief takes jab at Trump over 'America First''. Print Edition | Subscribe