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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applaud as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledges the cheers during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019.
Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applaud as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledges the cheers during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a photo opportunity with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before he addressed a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a photo opportunity with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before he addressed a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., stands up and takes a bow after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg mentioned in his address to a joint session of Congress that his mother was born in Pascrell's hometown of Paterson, N.J.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., stands up and takes a bow after NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg mentioned in his address to a joint session of Congress that his mother was born in Pascrell's hometown of Paterson, N.J. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, stops to greet Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford as he arrives to address a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019. At left is Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, stops to greet Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford as he arrives to address a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019. At left is Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., lower left, talks with, top to bottom, National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson before a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., lower left, talks with, top to bottom, National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson before a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, April 3, 2019. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

The United States is stronger with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization than it would be without it, the head of the 29-nation alliance said Wednesday in Washington, marking the first time the leader of the security pact addressed a joint session of Congress.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, whose speech came at the request of congressional leaders, stressed unity amid rising tensions with Russia and tried to allay concerns of strain among allies as NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary.

“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,” Stoltenberg told members of the House of Representatives and Senate, whose repeated rounds of applause contrasted with the White House’s criticism of the multilateral alliance.

While NATO was founded as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, Stoltenberg said the alliance remains vital because Europe faces new threats, including a resurgent Russia.

Russia’s deployment of a “mobile, hard to detect, nuclear capable,” missile system violates a Cold War-era treaty with the U.S., Stoltenberg said.

The weapons also “reduce the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict,” Stoltenberg said.

Relations within NATO have been strained during the past two years, mainly due to President Donald Trump’s criticisms on lesser financial contributions from key members like Germany. The verbal attacks have raised questions about the durability of America’s commitment to NATO.

While Trump’s mixed messages about the alliance’s values also have unsettled members of Congress, the backing of NATO has emerged as a rare point of bipartisan agreement.

In July, the House of Representatives passed legislation, by a vote of 357 to 22, that aimed to restrict Trump from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO.

Stoltenberg acknowledged the overall sense of anxiety without blaming Trump.

“We have to be frank,” he said. “Questions are being asked on both sides of the Atlantic about the strength of our partnership. And yes, we have our differences.”

In the past, the alliance was torn several times by disagreements between its member states, including during the Suez crisis in 1956, France’s withdrawal from NATO in 1966 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But allies overcame those disputes, Stoltenberg said.

Current disagreements include trade, energy policy, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal, he said.

“These are serious issues and serious disagreements,” Stoltenberg said. “The strength of NATO is that despite our differences, we have always been able to unite around our core task — to defend each other, protect each other.”

The top point of contention — one that has dominated Trump’s NATO agenda — is insufficient investment in defense by allies.

The downward trend has reversed and expenditures began increasing before Trump was elected. But pressure from the U.S. president has brought new momentum, Stoltenberg said.

“Allies must spend more on defense,” Stoltenberg said. “This has been the clear message from President Trump. And this message is having a real impact.”

Explaining NATO’s value, he noted that no member has been directly attacked by another country in the past 70 years. And he reminded lawmakers that the only time NATO declared its Article 5 provision — that an attack on one member demands a collective response from all — was after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“NATO has been good for Europe. And NATO has been good for the United States,” Stoltenberg said, receiving an ovation from Congress.

vandiver.john@stripes.com Twitter: @john_vandiver

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