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NATO Must Be Ready To Deploy Forces, Secretary-General Stoltenberg Says

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NATO faces its biggest challenge in years. For generations, this military alliance has linked the U.S. and Europe.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Its civilian leader, Jens Stoltenberg, wants to counter an aggressive Russia, not to mention multiple wars in the Middle East.

JENS STOLTENBERG: All of them at the same time, so that's exactly what we're doing. We are adapting to a more dangerous security environment.

INSKEEP: Then there's the political debate in the U.S. Stoltenberg, the one-time prime minister of Norway is in Washington this week. He is aware of a claim by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: NATO may be obsolete. NATO was set up a long time ago - many, many years ago when things were different.

INSKEEP: Trumps' comments to Bloomberg troubled U.S. security experts who see the alliance as vital. But as Stoltenberg knows, Trump was in part, repeating a common concern. Europeans cut defense budgets leaving the U.S. to carry much of the defense burden.

INSKEEP: Is Trumps' critique that European nations are not paying enough essentially right?

STOLTENBERG: I will not comment on the U.S. election campaign...

INSKEEP: But you can comment on NATO funding...

STOLTENBERG: But what I can do is to of course say what NATO is doing and we are an important tool addressing the threats both from the South - ISIL terrorism - but also the challenges from the East with a more assertive Russia. And we have delivered a lot in a very short period of time. European NATO allies are also stepping up. They are now in the lead of the new High Readiness Force in Europe. They are providing the bulk of the forces, for instance to the Balkans.

INSKEEP: But let's be clear. There is a guideline stating that NATO nations are supposed to spend about 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product on their militaries. The vast majority of European allies aren't doing that. The median country, I believe, is doing about half that.

STOLTENBERG: I am working closely with all the NATO allies to make sure that NATO allies are making good on the pledges they made.

INSKEEP: To increase defense spending.

STOLTENBERG: To increase defense spending. And the pledges that those countries who are spending less than 2 percent shall increase their defense spending and then the aim is to reach 2 percent within a decade. We have seen some progress already after just one year. After many, many years of cuts in defense spending among European NATO allies, the cuts stopped last year. That's just the beginning, but it's an important first step in the right direction.

INSKEEP: When you were prime minister of Norway, how difficult was it to argue for more defense spending?

STOLTENBERG: It was a challenge. And I have - as Minister of Finance in Norway in the 1990s, I was responsible for cutting Norwegian defense spending, but then as prime minister I was responsible for increasing Norwegian defense spending since 2008. So I have been responsible for both. And in the '90s I think it was right to cut defense spending because that was after the end of the Cold War. Tensions went down. But in Norway, we decided in 2008, also because of the Russian invasion of Georgia, to gradually start to increase our defense spending. So I have done both and I think that just illustrates that defense spending has to reflect the security environment and when tensions are increasing, defense spending should go up.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about your judgment of a couple of long-term decisions that, to be clear, were made before you became secretary general of NATO. The NATO alliance intervened in 2011 in Libya - helped to overthrow the government there and it was a limited intervention, as well as, limited involvement afterward. Of course, the involvement of some of the same countries in Syria could be described as even more limited although it's been increasing over time. In those cases, do you think that the cost of limiting outside intervention has turned out to be greater than any benefit or savings of limiting intervention?

STOLTENBERG: I think that NATO has to be ready to deploy forces and to intervene again if needed. But I think the lesson we have learned is that, in the long run, it's more sustainable if we are able to enable local forces to stabilize their own countries and to fight terrorism themselves.

INSKEEP: That's turned out to be the central problem in both Libya and Syria hasn't it?

STOLTENBERG: But well, that's the reason why we have made very clear that we are ready to support Libya to build defense capacity. And that's the reason why we are doing exactly what we're doing in Afghanistan. We have ended the combat mission, but we have a big train, assist and advise mission. In Syria, NATO is not directly involved in capacity building, but all the NATO allies and the United States is training and helping local forces. And we have seen those in some practical examples.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mention practical examples. As an idea it has gained support. But you mention Afghanistan - there's an instance where NATO allies have tried for considerably more than a decade, and there is not precisely stability in Afghanistan to say the least, and the local forces there are said to have a very long way to go. Have people made any progress in figuring out how to do this?

STOLTENBERG: I think no one believes that it is easy to create stability in Afghanistan. And no one believes that the 2016 or 2017 will be years without fighting, without setbacks in Afghanistan. But what we have seen in Afghanistan is that we have been able to prevent that Afghanistan becomes a safe haven for international terrorists. We have been able to build a national unity government, and we have been able to build a Afghan National Army and security forces of 350,000 soldiers and personnel. And we have enabled them to take over the security in Afghanistan themselves. So we have completely ended our combat mission. What we are doing there in Afghanistan now is to support - help them - by train, assist and advise. So that's an important achievement, but of course the challenges in Afghanistan - they still remain.

INSKEEP: Secretary general, thanks very much.

STOLTENBERG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Jens Stoltenberg of NATO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.