By ROBERT BURNS
AP National Security Writer
WASHINGTON — In the first address to Congress by a NATO head, Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday acknowledged serious divisions within the alliance and called for bigger defense budgets to cope with global challenges such as Russian assertiveness, the core reason NATO was created in Washington 70 years ago this week.
“We have to be frank,” Stoltenberg said before a joint meeting of Congress. “Questions are being asked on both sides of the Atlantic about the strength of our partnership. And, yes, there are differences.”
The NATO secretary general credited President Donald Trump with compelling allies to spend more on defense, without noting that Trump also has questioned the value of the alliance and suggested that some members are freeloaders.
Trump’s criticisms have upset a delicate balance within an alliance that has long counted on Washington to be its leader. Stoltenberg’s speech provided a diplomatic counterpoint to Trump’s sometimes derisive rhetoric, and the enthusiastic reception he received from both parties in the House was testament to an enduring pro-NATO consensus in Congress.
Trump’s criticisms are not NATO’s only source of friction. The alliance also is at odds with long-time member Turkey over its planned purchase of a Russian air defense system that is not compatible with the allied air defenses. The Trump administration is threatening to stop delivery to Turkey of the newest U.S. fighter jet, the F-35, if the Turks go through with their plan to buy Russia’s advanced S-400 system instead of the American Patriot system.
Escalating that fight, Vice President Mike Pence scolded Turkey at a NATO 70th anniversary event following Stoltenberg’s speech. He said the Russian S-400 system “poses great danger to NATO,” and suggested that Turkey needs to decide between NATO and Russia.