NATO Defense Ministers discuss future of Alliance during ministerial

Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the meetings of NATO Defence Ministers at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on February 17 and 18. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg outlined proposals for alliance leaders to discuss that will capitalize on NATO’s ability to adapt and change to changing security conditions. He spoke during a virtual press conference in advance of the virtual Defense Ministerial , held Feb. 17-18.

The defense ministers discussed Stoltenberg’s NATO 2030 proposals and ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III’s first ministerial in his position.

The ministers discussed issues that will be presented at the NATO Summit that will be held later this year in Brussels. “Our summit later this year will be a unique opportunity to start a new chapter for transatlantic relations,” Stoltenberg said from Brussels. “When we meet, I want to present leaders an ambitious agenda for transatlantic security and defense.”

His NATO 2030 proposals are the heart of the discussion he would like to see. The secretary general outlined those proposals for reporters.

The secretary general wants to see an increase in alliance funding for the core deterrence and defense activities. “This would support allied deployments in our battle groups in the eastern part of our alliance, air policing, maritime deployments and exercises,” he said.

Georgian soldiers with the 32nd Georgian Infantry Battalion conduct a Key Leader Engagement during the Mission Rehearsal Exercise at Patuhk Training Area, Georgia, Oct. 27, 2020. The Mission Rehearsal Exercise is a training and assessment focused on preparing the Georgian infantry battalions to integrate and contribute to the NATO Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Devin J. Andrews)

This would have the effect of strengthening the alliance and contribute to fairer burden-sharing, he said.

Stoltenberg also wants the alliance to adopt clearer and more measurable national resilience targets to ensure a minimum standard of shared resilience among allies. Part of this would be an annual review of vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure and technologies. This review would include risks stemming from foreign ownership and influence of capabilities.

NATO must preserve its technological edge. “I will propose a NATO Defense Innovation Initiative to promote interoperability and boost transatlantic cooperation on defense innovation,” he said.

There is a real danger that more advanced nations could develop capabilities that won’t communicate with capabilities of lesser advanced NATO nations. He wants to preclude that.

In an era of “whole-of-government” strategies, Stoltenberg wants to increase political coordination between allies with more consultations on more issues including economic matters related to security. “We have the procedures in place to do this today, but what we need is more political will to use them,” he said.

It is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but NATO must address global challenges and develop a more global approach to problems and challenges, the secretary general said.

“China and Russia are at the forefront of an authoritarian pushback against the rules-based international order,” he said. “So we should enhance our political dialogue and practical cooperation with like-minded partners to promote our values and protect our interests.”

A part of this proposal is to strengthen training and capacity building with European partner countries, “because prevention is better than intervention,” he said.

Climate change is real and is already having effects. The alliance needs to address the security implications of climate change. “I will therefore propose that NATO should set the gold standard on reducing emissions from the military sector and contribute to the goal of net-zero carbon emissions and conduct an annual assessment of how climate change might impact our troops and deployments,” he said.

NATO has kept the peace for more than 70 years. A creature of the Cold War, the alliance — now with 30 members — adapted to the fall of the Soviet Union and still keeps the peace. Stoltenberg would like to see this legacy continue. “I will recommend [updating] NATO’s Strategic Concept to jointly address the changing strategic environment to recommit to our values and to reinforce the transatlantic bond,” he said.

Key to NATO has always been the unbreakable transatlantic bond, he said. The last four years tested that. “I think it’s no secret that over the last four years we had some difficult discussions inside NATO, but now we look to the future,” he said. “The future is that we now have an administration … in Washington, which is strongly committed to the transatlantic bond, to NATO and to Europe and North America working together.”

Stoltenberg has spoken with President Joe Biden and he called Biden “very strong, very clear on the importance of re-building alliances and further strengthening NATO.”

Afghanistan is a contentious issue that the defense ministers will contend with. Under the U.S. agreement with the Taliban, all foreign troops are supposed to be out of the country by May 1.

“I will not preempt the conclusions of the ministerial meeting this week, but what I can say is that we need to find the right balance between making sure that we do not stay longer than necessary, but at the same time that we don’t leave too early,” Stoltenberg said. “We should not end up in a situation where Afghanistan again becomes a platform, a safe haven, for international terrorists, which is actually the reason why we went in there.”

There are about 10,000 NATO troops — including 2,500 Americans — in Afghanistan today. The NATO force is performing a train, assist and advise mission.

A final issue the ministers will discuss is Iraq’s request for more alliance help in training forces and building security capabilities.