NATO Military Committee holds its first meeting of 2021; US President speaks with NATO Secretary General

31 January 2021

The Military Committee*—NATO’s highest military authority—held its first meeting of 2021 on 27 January in a hybrid virtual/in person format. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Chairman of the Military Committee, presided over the closed sessions (see his opening remarks) of the Chiefs of Defence (CHODs) supported by General Tod Wolters (Supreme Allied Commander Europe, SACEUR) and General André Lanata (Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, SACT).

According to a press statement by Air Chief Marshal Peach, the CHODs discussed NATO’s operations, missions and activities as well as met with their operational partners in its three ongoing missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. They also apparently reviewed the progress of the “Alignment of the Deterrence and Defence of the Euro-Atlantic area” concept as well as finalised their advice on NATO’s Warfighting Capstone Concept. The details of both of these documents remain classified, but the Committee’s advice on them “will now be submitted for consideration to our political leadership”. The group also found time to consider current and future threats alongside a discussion on lessons drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic (where General Claudio Graziano, Chairman of the EU Military Committee, was also a participant). All of these discussions will help inform Defence Ministers at their next meeting in February.

The NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, addressed the meeting and updated the CHODs on the progress of his NATO 2030 initiative. He also urged member states to continue to increase defence spending—despite the huge deficits being run by western governments because of the pandemic—invest in modern capabilities and remain “ready to deal with challenges such as Russia’s aggressive actions, terrorism and the risks posed by the rise of China” (according to Peach’s press statement).

The discussion was also significant in light of the change in leadership in Washington and the Biden administration's pledge to reinvigorate ties with allied nations. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke with US President Joe Biden on 26 January in a relaxed, friendly discussion that was carried on NATO's YouTube channel. "We've got a mountain of work to do ahead of us, from tackling COVID, to climate, to the security challenges," Biden told the secretary general. "I intend to rebuild and re-establish our alliances, starting with NATO". They also agreed to work together on preparing the NATO Summit in Brussels later this year.

The contents of such calls are typically released in a short statement—see White House statement and NATO statement on this call—but on this occasion an extract was also released as an edited video conversation. The White House did the edit, but both sides agreed to the final content. According to a senior US official this reflected the importance of the White House's support for NATO and for revitalizing transatlantic relationships, which were frayed during the Trump years.

It was also claimed that the edited video is part of a new effort to bring the public closer and share more of Biden's work with foreign leaders. Robert Flaherty, who leads digital strategy at the White House, said seeing and hearing the president affirm NATO's Article 5 mutual-defence commitment in his own voice was powerful.

An unedited livestream of the call between the President and the NATO Secretary General would have been even more powerful. And livestreaming of the NATO Military Committee would have provided much needed transparency of one of the opaquest processes within NATO. Such military conceptual decision-making needs to be open and visible, with the reasons for outcomes clearly outlined. This would enable greater accountability of the military decision-making within civilian parliaments of member states.

* The Military Committee meets twice a year at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, at the level of Chiefs of Defence, to provide the North Atlantic Council with consensus-based military advice on how the alliance can best meet global security challenges. Once a year they meet in a member state. On a day-to-day basis, their work is carried out by the permanent Military Representatives at NATO headquarters in Brussels.