VILNIUS, Lithuania — It’s not the easiest thing to be a NATO-loving Republican like Thom Tillis.
The North Carolina senator remains a loud and proud transatlanticist even as former President Donald Trump questions whether the United States should even be a member of the alliance and his colleagues write letters to the Biden administration demanding limits of support to Ukraine. He ignores polls showing that about a third of Americans hold generally unfavorable views of NATO and Kyiv.
At this week’s NATO summit in Lithuania, Tillis stressed that the United States had an interest in having like-minded allies, reminding anyone who would listen that the United States’ mere invocation of Article 5 NATO – where an attack on one is an attack on all – happened after 9/11. . Tillis pointed out, again and again, that members of the alliance watched their citizens die and their governments spend billions to help America decimate al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
But Tillis – who speaks with a southern drawl and listens with a steely gaze – is still a seasoned politician who gently cautions his support for the alliance by stressing that other countries should contribute more to their defense and that continued support for Ukraine should be under a microscope.
Tillis lives and breathes the tightrope of foreign policy that Republicans (and some Democrats) are walking these days: any expression of internationalism must be accompanied by a rejoinder about how it will benefit ordinary Americans and not overtake Washington’s resources.
“National defense and the strength of the alliance is what allows us to focus on the points of the social agenda,” he told POLITICO in one of three interviews before, during and after the NATO summit this week. “National defense must come first. Everything else is enabled by this.
He says his positions are not a political triangulation but reflect “a real assessment” of the situation. But it’s hard to escape the realization that everything he sees about NATO, allies and global cooperation attracts multiple political factions – a fact he doesn’t deny.
“I think we can go to maybe three or four different unique groups depending on their concerns, reach out to them and map them out,” he said.
Tillis’ appearance at the alliance’s annual gathering – billed as one of NATO’s most historic in its nearly 75-year history – was another testing ground for his message. His performance could encourage other globally minded Republicans to follow his playbook.
Tillis started Tuesday morning with a laugh as he told Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.) over breakfast that his hotel room was so dark “you could develop a movie there.” Moments later, he met behind closed doors US General Christopher Cavoli, NATO military chief, as one of six members of a bipartisan delegation to the summit. This session kicked off a series of discussions with leaders from countries such as Germany and the Czech Republic.
His message to all was blunt and direct: you can count on Congress to support allies and support Ukraine for as long as it takes – but please spend more on defense to ease the burden. from America.
“We have to be very tough and say, guys, we contribute more than anyone else. And the fact is that if the United States did not contribute what it is, Ukraine would be in a very different position right now. We just want you all to get something equivalent to about half of what we spend on national defence. I think that’s a reasonable request,” Tillis said.
The senator’s position is not entirely new. Presidents on both sides have long pushed NATO allies to invest more in their militaries, both to arm Europe against threats and to reduce reliance on US capabilities. But this old criticism is now making people cringe in European capitals, especially in Kyiv, as it suggests that the United States wants to minimize its role in Ukraine’s defense.
This may not bother Tillis, as it was a goal for the Congressional delegation to the summit to point out that America has limited resources and cannot be expected to do everything. He often pushes his allies to view a NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense as a floor, not a cap – a position his Republican colleagues agree with.
“It’s a bipartisan view that the lack of support at the 2% level and those commitments could start to undermine U.S. support for Ukraine aid,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R- Alaska) on the edge of the summit. , “because we’re basically saying it’s a huge war raging in your own backyard and we’re the ones doing the most of it again.”
“I raised this issue, but all my colleagues did too, to be honest, in every meeting we had with all the senior leaders,” he continued.
It comes with a bit more weight when Tillis takes stock. He is co-chair of the NATO Observer Group, a caucus he re-established with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.) in 2018 to brief senators outside of defense committees on spending practices and plans allied soldiers. This makes him, in a sense, one of the most important legislators that NATO members have to satisfy.
“He’s tough but he likes us, so it works,” said a European official on condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to speak to the press.
The lawmaker helped revive the group during Trump’s presidency in part because, in Tillis’ words, “we had an administration that questioned the validity of NATO.” In 2018, Trump often told aides he wanted to pull the United States out of the alliance it had ruled for decades.
The former president’s quest to return to his old job in 2024 could complicate Tillis’ delicate dance. Trump is already critical of US support for Ukraine and claims, without any evidence, that he could end the war with Russia in 24 hours after negotiating with Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin. If he continues to do so throughout the election season, North Carolina may have to choose between supporting the party leader’s view or disagreeing with him.
“Joe Biden should not be dragging us further into World War III by sending cluster munitions to Ukraine – he should be trying to END the war and stop the horrific death and destruction caused by an incompetent administration” , Trump said in a statement on Tuesday.
But as things stand, Tillis isn’t lining up behind the favorite – at least not yet.
“The only way to end this war in 24 hours is to give victory to Putin,” he said. And if Trump makes these points and other skeptics in high-profile debates, “it forces us to come out and have the courage to say that we respectfully disagree with someone I’ve supported in the past.” .
Still, Tillis remains a supporter — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell brought him on the leadership team in January.
He is quick to claim that Putin would not have launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year if Trump were still in power. When asked why Trump didn’t help Ukraine push back the Russians who had annexed Crimea and seized parts of Donbass, the senator said “they have deep roots.” (And noted, of course, that the initial invasion happened on Barack Obama’s watch.)
“I still have a very good relationship with President Trump,” Tillis said. He explained that it is possible to disagree with the frontrunner on Ukraine and NATO and still be loyal to him, noting how Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) endorsed Trump although he is one of the staunchest supporters of the Kyiv Congress.
Even so, Democrats have nothing but good things to say about Tillis’ transatlanticism.
“Tom is a good Republican, there’s no doubt about it, but he certainly has an independent streak,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), also a member of the summit delegation. “His participation in this effort not only gives him a chance to showcase his own talent, but also helps make this a bipartisan effort.”
Shaheen, who co-led the Congressional Sextet with Tillis, called him a “great partner.”
The question for Tillis is whether he will succeed in making his case to both NATO allies and Republicans at home. A point of tension was that some Republicans did not want to raise the defense spending cap President Kevin McCarthy negotiated with Biden to further fund Ukraine’s resistance.
The senator’s job is made easier by the fact that his constituents, at least, have generally positive attitudes toward the alliance and the Ukraine Assistance Mission, he said. And as for the skepticism of some in his party and elsewhere in Congress, he thinks just telling them about the benefits of allies and supporting kyiv can work.
He knows the job is not done. Sitting alongside his fellow delegates inside the ornate Vilnius City Hall, which during the summit also serves as a working space for the US press, Tillis conceded that “we have work to do.” But, he told reporters, “I’m actually optimistic about bipartisan support in Congress to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”