BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pushed hard Wednesday against President-elect Donald Trump’s comments that the Western military alliance is “obsolete,” saying that the defense organization is constantly evolving to meet modern security threats, including terrorism.
The pushback in a roundtable with journalists — the first public response from the NATO leader since Trump slammed the organization in weekend comments — was the latest in an extraordinary public spat between the alliance that forms the backbone of Western security guarantees and the man who assumes command of the world’s biggest military superpower on Friday.
Stoltenberg said that he looked forward to working with Trump and that he was “absolutely certain that the United States will remain committed to security guarantees.”
“There is strong bipartisan support in the United States for the U.S. commitment to NATO,” Stoltenberg said.
Trump has complained that the alliance is too focused on fighting conventional threats and not enough on terrorism. He has also said that European allies do not spend enough money on their own defense, an outlook long shared by President Obama and Stoltenberg, although Trump has gone on to say that he would not necessarily defend allies who didn't meet funding commitments.
Stoltenberg said that NATO had made major modernization efforts and had quickly adapted to the changed European security landscape after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
“NATO is constantly changing. That’s why NATO is the strongest military alliance in history,” he said.
Trump has forced an unusual public conversation about the role and value of NATO, which had generally been considered a settled question among both Democrats and Republicans, particularly after the flare-up of the 2014 conflict in Ukraine.
But Trump’s pressure to reorient NATO’s military power toward fighting terrorism has drawn a mixed response among alliance members.
“NATO is at the forefront of the fight against international terrorism,” the chairman of NATO’s military committee, Czech General Petr Pavel, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday following a meeting of the heads of the 28 member nations’ militaries. “Countering terrorism is a complex challenge that cannot have just a military response.”
The alliance leaders’ comments came as senior officials warned that Russia has France, Germany and others in its targets, seeking to exploit the same digital vulnerabilities that U.S. intelligence agencies say unsettled the race between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Stoltenberg said that NATO had also seen a major rise in cyberattacks on its own systems last year, saying that they had risen 60 percent in 2016, to more than 500 a month. Many of the attacks were state-sponsored, he said. He declined to identify Russia as the culprit, but he said that NATO saw “the same pattern we see in many allies.”
And he said that NATO was watching potential threats against its member nations carefully.
“We have seen a report from several national agencies that they are concerned about the potential of cyberattacks, hacking, meddling or intervening in the national election process,” Stoltenberg said. “It’s undermining democracy, one of the core values that NATO is there to protect.”
The departing U.S. administration has also been warning its European allies about the potential for Russian meddling in this year’s elections.
“With many countries in Europe slated to hold elections this year, we should expect further attempts by Russia to meddle in the democratic process,” Vice President Biden said Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Their purpose is clear: to collapse the liberal international order.”
European leaders say they are trying to apply the lessons.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said this month that he was concerned about a cyberattack against his nation’s political parties in the run-up to April presidential elections, where anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen has praised both the Kremlin and Donald Trump.
“I call everyone to the utmost vigilance,” Le Drian told the French weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche. He said that the heads of political parties were briefed last year about how to prevent hacking.
Germany’s parliament was also hacked in 2015, according to that nation’s intelligence agencies, and security officials have said they believe the culprit was likely the same group that hacked the Democratic National Committee this summer.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is running for reelection this fall. As with her mainstream counterparts in France, she faces far-right challengers who want to pull Germany out of the European Union and strike a warmer relationship with Russia.
The release of internal DNC emails embarrassed the organization, forced DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign and fed into perceptions that party leaders had favored Clinton over her primary challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). A hack of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email also led to a dripping leak of embarrassing revelations that dominated headlines in the waning weeks of the campaign.