By Ian Davis
8 October 2021
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Washington D.C. on 4-5 October 2021, where he met senior US officials and lawmakers. On 4 October Stoltenberg met President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss how to further strengthen the transatlantic bond and prepare the NATO Summit in Madrid next year. He also met Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and spoke to Secretary of State Antony Blinken by phone.
Stoltenberg’s meeting with Austin was his 11th virtual or in-person meeting with the Defense Secretary since February, when consultations focused heavily on the US and NATO exit from Afghanistan. According to a NATO statement, the Secretary General stressed during this visit that the alliance “continues to adapt to a more unpredictable world, where great power competition is rising, along with cyber threats, terrorism, and the security impact of climate change”. He also stressed that European allies and Canada had increased military spending, with “$260 billion more on defence invested since 2014”. The US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin thanked the secretary general for all he's done to hold the alliance together and modernize it and praised Stoltenberg’s NATO 2030 plan that allied leaders agreed during the Brussels Summit in June. “Allied leaders launched a bold set of initiatives to ensure that NATO continues to provide security to all of our citizens through 2030 and beyond,” Austin said. “We need continued investment in NATO’s deterrence and defence, as well as a revised strategic concept that will guide the alliance’s approach to the evolving strategic environment”. (Also see the Department of Defense readout of the meeting).
In the call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken the importance of cooperation between NATO and key US allies in dealing with regional and global issues was stressed, according to the State Department read out. "Secretary Blinken and Secretary General Stoltenberg underscored the value of NATO's partnerships with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea" it said. The emphasis on cooperation between NATO and US allies in Asia comes amid US efforts to maintain what it calls a ‘rules-based order’ in the Indo-Pacific. The US also launched a new trilateral security initiative in the region last month with Australia and Britain that seeks to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
On 5 October 2021, the Secretary General met with members of the Senate NATO Observer Group led by Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Senator Thom Tillis. He then met with the US House Foreign Affairs Committee and NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NPA) hosted by Congressman Gerald E. Connolly, President of the NPA.
The Secretary General concluded his visit by participating in an event hosted by Brookings Institution and Georgetown University, titled ‘NATO in a Competitive World’. In his remarks the Secretary General stressed the importance of Europe and North America standing together in NATO as it adapts to more “uncertain world”. The alliance is shifting efforts and resources from large combat operations outside NATO to strengthen deterrence and defence at home and prepare for a world of greater state-to-state rivalry, he said. “We are at a pivotal moment for our shared security where we face a more dangerous and more competitive world,” Stoltenberg added, characterizing Russia as “more aggressive abroad” and China as using its economic and military might to “coerce other countries and exert control over global supply chains, critical infrastructure, and other assets”.
One key change is the emphasis on the security effects climate change will have on the world. “For the first time in our history, we are putting climate change and security at the core of NATO’s agenda,” he said. “Climate change fuels and multiplies the risk of conflict and threatens our security and impacts the environment in which we operate. So NATO must play its part. We are adapting our planning installations and equipment to more extreme weather, and establishing the first ever methodology to map military missions across the alliance, so that also we can contribute to the goal of net zero emissions”.
During the Q&A session the Secretary General was asked to comment on Afghanistan and China, where he repeated many of the points he has made at other times and in other fora.
Stoltenberg highlighted three points about the Afghanistan mission: that allies had taken the decision to leave together after many rounds of consultations; that the mission had not been in vain, as for 20 years, no terrorist attacks have been launched from Afghanistan; and that NATO was continuing to work “to ensure the country does not again become a safe haven for terrorists”.
Of course, there were extensive consultations within NATO on the Afghan withdrawal decision—three ministerial meetings, several committee meetings and North Atlantic Council meetings at the Ambassador level—nonetheless, it was clearly a US decision and not a NATO decision to leave. While the Secretary General claims that “We went in together, we adjusted our presence together and we left Afghanistan together”, the reality is that these were all decisions directed first and foremost by US presidents pursuing US interests.
On terrorism, the Secretary General emphasised that the Taliban government had to be held accountable for their promises not to allow Afghanistan to be a platform for launching terrorist attacks against NATO member states. He also stressed that NATO allies needed to be “ready to strike, over the horizon, long distance, and to stay vigilant”. However, there was no discussion of the efficacy and legality of over horizon warfare, and the Secretary General failed to mention the US drone strike on 29 August in Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians – including seven children – and not an Islamic State extremist as first claimed by the Pentagon. Nor was there any further announcement about a lessons learnt process that has been promised by NATO in relation to its intervention in Afghanistan.
In a separate news release, NATO stated that member states were continuing their joint efforts to resettle Afghans who worked with NATO. Around 2,000 Afghans who worked with NATO, and their families, were evacuated from Kabul in August, as part of more than 120,000 people that were flown out in the largest evacuation mission in NATO's history.
In terms of how NATO is looking at China the Secretary General began by stressing that the rise of China had helped to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but at the same time posed “some serious challenges to NATO allies”. He considered it “wrong” to distinguish between China being a lesser challenge because it is in the Pacific, while Russia is in Europe (a distinction, for example, that French officials are prone to make). Instead, he stressed that “in a global security environment, everything is interconnected. China is close also in cyberspace, we see it in Africa, we see it in Arctic, we see it investing heavily in our own infrastructure”. He added that China has the second largest defence budget in the world, the largest navy in the world and is investing heavily in new military capabilities, including nuclear long-range weapon systems. In short, “this is huge and strong military capability which is expanding, year by year. That matters for our security”. However, he also stressed that “we don't regard China as an adversary, we don't regard them as an enemy”, and remained committed to continuing to engage with China on climate and on arms control. At the Summit in June 2021, NATO set out some agreed positions in relation to China (see this NATO Watch analysis), and these are expected to be developed further in the upcoming new Strategic Concept.