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US Lawmakers Restore NATO Observer Group to 'Stand with European Allies'

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., center, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, left, talk with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 7, 2018,
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., center, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, left, talk with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 7, 2018,

A bipartisan group aimed at strengthening congressional ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, has been re-established, more than a decade after it was disbanded.

U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Thom Tillis on Wednesday relaunched the Senate NATO Observer Group, which they will co-chair. Initially established in 1997, the mission oversaw a number of alliance enlargement rounds and served as a focal point among U.S. administrations, NATO and Congress before it became inactive in 2007.

Addressing reporters at the Russell Senate building on Wednesday, the lawmakers said U.S. President Donald Trump's controversial comments about America’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance compelled them to reconstitute the monitoring group.

Trump has repeatedly questioned one of NATO's core tenets — Article 5, which says that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all members. He has also criticized allies for not spending enough on defense, saying it is unfair to taxpayers in the United States. The president, however, did reaffirm support for NATO while urging allies to pay their fair share.

'Island of stability'

Last month in Brussels, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis encouraged European allies to stick to a promise to increase military budgets in lockstep with increased U.S. spending. He also said, "In a world awash in change, NATO stands firm as an island of stability in a turbulent sea."

Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said Wednesday, "Now more than ever, it's imperative that the United States work closely with NATO to respond to the ever-evolving threats to Western democracies, particularly from the Kremlin.” She added, "This new Senate NATO Observer Group will serve as a focal point for engagement between NATO and the Senate as these institutions seek to strengthen trans-Atlantic bonds and modernize NATO to respond to hybrid warfare and other threats.”

Tillis, a Republican of North Carolina, said the primary reason for resurrecting the group is to signal to allies that U.S. legislators stand by NATO.

"We also stand with newer [entrants] into NATO and possibly others,” said Senator Tillis, adding that "one thing that is common among all countries Western countries, free nations is that NATO is a calming influence on the world. And it is probably one of the greatest contributors to global security.”

Praise for unity

Also on hand for the launch was Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European Affairs Wess Mitchell, who emphasized U.S. commitments to NATO.

"There is no major foreign policy challenge in the world today in which either the United States or Europe can expect to succeed without one another," he said. "Our unity is a strategic necessity and national resource of great value. America must continue to take responsibility for Western security and that task has never been more essential than it is today.”

Mitchell concluded by saying, "I know I speak for Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson and Ambassador [Kay Bailey] Hutchison,” the top U.S. diplomat to NATO, "in saying how committed the State Department and U.S. government are to working with our congressional colleagues to sustain the Atlantic Alliance.”

The Senate NATO Observer Group has 10 members, but the co-chairs hope to work with Republican and Democratic leaders in the chamber to expand membership by reaching out to legislators who are not currently serving on national security committees.

Russia, which has long deemed the alliance a threat and relic of the Cold War, opposes NATO expansion.

This story originated in VOA's Georgian service.