NATO chief to Congress: Alliance 'has also been good for the United States'

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday that the 70-year-old alliance has been as much a boon for the United States as it has been for its 28 other members, bookending his speech by saying that “it is good to have friends.”

“So NATO has been good for Europe, but NATO has also been good for the United States,” Stoltenberg said during a joint address to Congress, to a standing applause from lawmakers.

“The strength of a nation is not only measured by the size of its economy or the number of its soldiers, but also by the number of its friends,” he continued. “And through NATO, the United States has more friends and allies than any other power."

Stoltenberg, the first NATO secretary-general to address a joint session of Congress, was invited to speak by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer Bush assistant: Mueller report makes Obama look 'just plain bad' 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Dem says marijuana banking bill will get House vote this spring MORE (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent 20 years after Columbine, Dems bullish on gun reform Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars MORE (D-Calif.) as lawmakers seek to show their support for the alliance amid President TrumpDonald John TrumpImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent Feds say marijuana ties could prevent immigrants from getting US citizenship Trump approval drops to 2019 low after Mueller report's release: poll MORE’s threats to withdraw.

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And just as Stoltenberg pitched lawmakers on the alliance’s continued relevance at its 70th anniversary, Congress reciprocated by offering resounding cheers in a display of strong support for continued U.S. commitment to the pact.

Lawmakers offered several standing ovations for Stoltenberg, at one point even appearing to catch him off guard with their enthusiasm with resounding applause early in his speech when he mentioned that NATO was founded because allies were “determined to stand up to the expansion of the Soviet Union.”

Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of NATO’s founding. Allies, worried Trump would derail the pomp and circumstance of a heads-of-state summit, are holding a subdued celebration with foreign ministers at the State Department on Wednesday night, followed by a foreign ministerial to discuss Russia and Afghanistan on Thursday.

Since his presidential campaign, Trump has blasted NATO allies for not paying more for their own defense and has threatened to withdraw if they don’t bulk up their defense spending.

Allies have a goal of spending 2 percent of their respective gross domestic products on defense by 2024. Eight members are meeting or expected to meet that goal this year: United States, United Kingdom, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Lithuania.

Stoltenberg has taken pains not to get on Trump’s bad side, crediting him with allies' increased spending. On Tuesday at the White House, he touted that allies will spend $100 billion more by the end of 2020 than when Trump took office.

The credit, in turn, has endeared Stoltenberg to Trump.

“A lot of people don’t like giving credit. Like the media never gives me credit, but he gave me credit,” Trump said during his meeting with Stoltenberg on Tuesday.

In his speech Wednesday, Stoltenberg alluded to disagreements between Trump and other NATO members, saying that “questions are being asked on both sides of the Atlantic about the strengthen of our partnership.”

“Open discussions and different views is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength,” he said to a standing ovation.

Stoltenberg also made the case for greater defense spending, saying that “NATO must be a fair alliance.”

“In an ideal world, we would not need to spend any money on defense, but we do not live in an ideal world,” he said. “Hitler could not have been stopped with peaceful protest. Stalin could not have been deterred with words. ISIS could not have been defeated with dialogue.”

But, speaking about his visit to Arlington National Cemetery, Stoltenberg also said the “ultimate expression of burden sharing is that we fight together and die together.”

One immediate issue facing NATO is the impending demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans the United States and Russia from having certain missiles.

The Trump administration in February started the six-month process for the United States to officially withdraw from the treaty.

Trump caught NATO allies off guard when he first announced last year he intended to withdraw from the INF Treaty, but NATO has since backed Trump’s decision, agreeing that Russia is in violation of the treaty.

On Wednesday, Stoltenberg warned Russia that “time is running out” to return to compliance with the treaty before the United States withdraws.

But he also made it clear that despite needing to “prepare for a world without the INF Treaty,” European allies do not want to host new U.S. missiles that are out of compliance with the treaty.

“We will not mirror what Russia is doing,” he said. “NATO has no intention of deploying land-based nuclear missiles in Europe, but NATO will also take the necessary steps to provide credible and effective deterrence.”