But Tillis — who speaks with a southern drawl and listens with a steely stare — is still a practiced politician who gently caveats his support for the alliance by stressing that other countries should be contributing more to their defense and that ongoing support for Ukraine should be under a microscope.
Tillis lives and breathes the foreign policy tightrope Republicans (and some Democrats) walk these days: Any expression of internationalism must come with a rejoinder about how it will benefit everyday Americans and not overextend Washington’s resources.
“National defense and the strength of the alliance is what enables us to focus on social agenda items,” he told POLITICO in one of three interviews before, during and after this week’s NATO summit. “National defense has to come first. Everything else is enabled by that.”
He claims his stances aren’t political triangulation but reflect “a true assessment” of the situation. But it’s hard to escape the realization that whatever he sees about NATO, allies and global cooperation appeals to multiple political factions — a fact he doesn’t deny.
“I think that we can go to maybe three or four different unique groups in terms of their concerns, go to them and map it 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. How he performed might encourage other globally-minded fellow Republicans to follow his playbook.
Tillis began Tuesday morning by chuckling as he told Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.) over breakfast that his hotel room was so dark “you could develop film in it.” Moments later he met behind closed doors with American Gen. Christopher Cavoli, NATO’s military chief, as one of six members in a bipartisan delegation to the summit. That session kicked off a series of chats with the leaders of countries like Germany and the Czech Republic.
His message to all of them was blunt and straightforward: You can count on Congress to support allies and back Ukraine for as long as it takes — but please spend more on defense to lessen the burden on America.
“We’ve got to be very stern and say, guys, we contribute more than any other. And the fact of the matter is that if the United States wasn’t contributing what it is, Ukraine would be in a very different posture right now. We just want you all to get to something equivalent to about a half of what we spend on national defense. I think that’s a reasonable request,” Tillis said.
The senator’s position isn’t entirely new. Presidents from both parties have long pushed NATO allies to invest more in their militaries, both to steel Europe against threats and lessen the reliance on American capabilities. But that old criticism raises hackles today in European capitals, particularly Kyiv, because it suggests that the U.S. wants to minimize its role in Ukraine’s defense.
Tillis may not mind that, though, as it was a goal for the congressional delegation at the summit to emphasize America has finite resources and can’t be expected to do it all. He often pushes allies to consider a NATO pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense to be a floor, not a ceiling — a stance fellow Republicans agree with.
“This is a bipartisan view that the lack of support at the 2 percent level and those commitments has the potential to start undermining American support for the assistance to Ukraine,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) on the sidelines of the summit, “because we’re essentially saying this is a huge war raging in your own backyard and we’re once again the ones who are doing the most.”
“I’ve been raising this, but so have all my colleagues, to be honest, in every meeting that we’ve had with all the senior leaders,” he continued.
It comes with a bit more weight when Tillis makes the point. He’s the co-chair of the NATO Observer Group, a caucus he reestablished with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in 2018 to inform senators outside defense committees about the spending practices and military plans of allies. That makes him, in a sense, among the most important lawmakers that NATO members must keep happy.
“He’s tough but he likes us, so it works,” said a European official granted anonymity because the individual wasn’t 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 was questioning the validity of NATO.” In 2018, Trump often told aides he wanted to withdraw the U.S. from the alliance it has led for decades.
The former president’s quest to get his old job back in 2024 could complicate Tillis’ delicate dance. Trump is already critical of U.S. support for Ukraine and claims, with no 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, the North Carolinian may have to choose between backing the party’s leader’s view or disagreeing with them.
“Joe Biden should not be dragging us further toward World War III by sending cluster munitions to Ukraine — he should be trying to END the war and stop the horrific death and destruction being caused by an incompetent administration,” Trump said in a statement Tuesday.
But as it stands, Tillis’ isn’t falling in line behind the frontrunner — at least not yet.
“The only way that this war could end in 24 hours is to give Putin a win,” he said. And if Trump makes these and other skeptical points during high-profile debates, “it requires us to come out and have the courage to say we respectfully disagree with someone that I have supported in the past.”
Still, Tillis remains a partisan — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell brought him into the leadership team in January.
He quickly asserts that Putin wouldn’t have launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year if Trump were still in office. When asked why Trump failed to help Ukraine push out the Russians that annexed Crimea and seized parts of the Donbas, the senator states that “they were deeply entrenched.” (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’s possible to disagree with the frontrunner on Ukraine and NATO but still stick by him, noting how Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) endorsed Trump despite being one of Congress’ most avid backers of Kyiv.
Even so, Democrats have only good things to say about Tillis’ transatlanticism.
“Tom’s a good Republican, there’s no question about it, but he certainly has an independent streak,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), also a member of the delegation at the summit. “His participation in this effort not only gives him a chance to show his own talent, but also helps to make this a bipartisan effort.”
Shaheen, who co-led the congressional sextet with Tillis, called him “a great partner.”
The question for Tillis is if he’ll successfully make his case both to NATO allies and Republicans back home. One point of tension was some Republicans didn’t want to increase the defense-spending cap Speaker 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, hold generally positive attitudes toward the alliance and the Ukraine assistance mission, he said. And as for the skepticism among some in his party and elsewhere in Congress, he thinks simply talking them through the benefits of allies and backing Kyiv can work.
He knows the work isn’t finished. Sitting alongside his fellow delegates inside Vilnius’ ornate town hall, which during the summit doubles as a workspace for American press, Tillis conceded that “we have work to do.” But, he told reporters, “I’m actually optimistic about bipartisan support in Congress for supporting Ukraine as long as it takes.”