NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and US President Donald Trump shake hands in the Oval Office at the White House April 02, 2019 in Washington, DC.
CNN  — 

President Donald Trump, a sometime NATO skeptic, praised the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Tuesday, saying his performance “has been outstanding.”

“The relationship with NATO has been very good, the relationship with the secretary general has been outstanding,” Trump said while sitting next to Stoltenberg at the White House.

“He’s done an excellent job, and when it came time to renew, because a lot of people wanted that job, it’s a great job, it really is, but a lot of people wanted it but I had no doubt in my mind who I wanted,” Trump added, referencing the recent decision by all 29 allies to extend Stoltenberg’s tenure by two years.

Trump has long criticized NATO countries over their failure to spend enough on defense and meet the two percent of GDP target recommended by the alliance, a target being met by only seven members presently.

‘People are paying and I’m very happy’

Asked if he was considering pulling the US out of NATO, Trump answered: “People are paying and I’m very happy with the fact that they’re paying.”

While previous presidents had made similar critiques of NATO members’ defense spending, Trump has made it a central theme of his presidential campaign and his administration’s foreign policy, once calling the alliance “obsolete” and repeatedly slamming allies over the spending issue and linking it to trade disputes with the European Union.

One way Stoltenberg has been able to ease Trump’s opposition has been to embrace a similar cause, the need to get allies to spend more, while simultaneously crediting Trump with progress toward those goals.

Stoltenberg has repeatedly cited defense spending increases among the non-US members of NATO, thanking Trump Tuesday “for your very strong leadership on burden sharing.”

“After years of cutting defense budgets NATO allies have now started to invest more and by the end of next year they will have added $100 billion more into their defense budgets since you took office, and that helps and it proves also that NATO is a strong alliance,” he added.

Trump referenced those same statistics and Stoltenberg’s prior comments crediting him with the spending boost during his praise for the NATO leader.

“A lot of people don’t like giving credit, like the media never gives me credit but he gave me credit, now we’re up to way over $100 billion and it’s going to be a lot higher than that by the end of 2020, but I appreciate the job he’s done,” Trump said Tuesday.

Challenges beyond Trump

In addition to handling a skeptical American President, Stoltenberg, who took office in 2014, has also had to contend with a militarily resurgent Russia and disagreements among various allies over a range of issues.

Stoltenberg, a former Prime Minister of Norway, has cited that experience including his time leading a coalition government of various parties, with helping him handle disagreements among allies.

“I have been a prime minister for 10 years in Norway, I have been prime minister in a coalition government and I would say that that was a good experience to have when I went on to NATO,” he said Monday during a press conference in Brussels.

When he entered office in 2014 the alliance was scrambling to confront Russia who had recently seized Crimea from Ukraine and was backing separatist fighters in the country’s east.

But NATO has been able to mobilize in the face of the threat from Moscow, agreeing in 2016 to deploy multi-national battalions to Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as part of an effort to reassure the easternmost allies.

Other issues have also confronted the alliance including divisions among its members over a range issues, particularly disagreements between the US and Turkey over Syria policy.

Though NATO has added members during Stoltenberg’s tenure, including Montenegro in 2017.

North Macedonia is also likely to join NATO soon following a name deal between that country and Greece.

Russia was critical of both countries’ joining the alliance and the government of Montenegro has accused Moscow of backing an assassination plot aimed at derailing its NATO membership.

The two-year extension will bring Stoltenberg’s tenure to an end on September 30 2022, making him the second longest serving secretary general in the history of the 70-year old alliance, second only to Joseph Luns who led-NATO from 1971 to 1984

Stoltenberg will address a joint session of Congress Wednesday, following an invitation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

NATO foreign ministers have come to Washington to mark the 70th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic alliance.