Stoltenberg Discusses NATO Transatlantic Link at Munich Conference

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is arguably the most successful alliance in history, ensuring no general war in Europe since the end of World War II. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the Munich Security Conference last week that the organization is adapting to ensure it continues its success against new threats and challenges.

But even as the alliance transitions, there are some pillars that remain undisturbed and the largest of those is the transatlantic partnership, Stoltenberg said.

He noted the symbolism of two items in front of the new NATO headquarters building in Brussels: a piece of the Berlin Wall and a twisted girder from New York’s World Trade Center. “Together they symbolize NATO’s steel-hard commitment to our collective defense and our solidarity in the fight against terrorism,” he said. “But most of all, they symbolize the unbreakable bond that unites the continents of North America and Europe.”

NATO Steps Up

The transatlantic partnership is being questioned, Stoltenberg said, with those in Europe perceiving a lack of U.S. support for Article 5, and U.S. officials perceiving unfair burden-sharing. “All of this has fueled an impression of weakening transatlantic bond,” he said. “But the reality is that the bond has proven to be resilient, because both Europe and North America benefit from the bond. What we see now is North Americans coming back to Europe, just as Europeans are stepping up their contributions to our shared security.”

Russia’s incursion into Georgia and its annexation of Crimea rang alarm bells on the continent, the secretary general said. In response, the United States increased the number of troops based in Europe. There are brigades deploying into and out of the Baltic republics and Poland. American ships patrol the Black Sea and U.S. aircraft aid in the Baltic air policing mission.

“This week, Washington rolled out a plan for further substantial increases in U.S. presence in Europe, [with] billions for equipment, prepositioned supplies, training and infrastructure,” Stoltenberg said. “Canadian troops have also returned to Europe for the first time in a generation, leading a multinational battlegroup in Latvia.”

The European allies and Canada have stood with America in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, he said.

European allies are also sharing the financial burden. Since 2014, defense spending on the continent and in Canada has increased. In 2014, only three allies met the 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense guideline. This year eight allies should hit the mark, and by 2024 there should be 15. “All NATO allies have put forward plans to increase spending in real terms,” Stoltenberg said. “This is major progress and it is a very good start. But we still have a long way to go and hard work ahead.”

E.U., NATO Cooperation ‘Vital’

But many of the NATO nations are also members of the European Union and the nations are trying to square the defense requirements for each alliance. “I welcome E.U. efforts on defense,” the secretary general said. “They are an opportunity to further strengthen the European pillar within NATO and contribute to better burden-sharing. But with opportunity comes risk: The risk of weakening the transatlantic bond; the risk of duplicating what NATO is already doing; and the risk of discriminating against non-E.U. members of the NATO alliance.”

The United States is key to defending Europe. “The reality is the European Union cannot protect Europe by itself,” Stoltenberg said. He noted that after Great Britain leaves the European Union, 80 percent of NATO’s defense spending will come from non-EU allies.

Merging E.U. and NATO assets of the European allies will be crucial for defense. “If the E.U. actions complement NATO and are not seen as an alternative, then I see great potential for improving European security,” he said. “That is why a closer NATO-E.U. cooperation is vital.”

Stoltenberg also discussed what he called “the re-emergence of nuclear challenges.”

After the Cold War, NATO placed nuclear issues on the back burner, but Russia’s modernization effort, Iran’s nuclear program and North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear nation placed it in the forefront once again.

“Let me be clear, NATO’s goal is a world without nuclear weapons, but as long as they exist NATO will remain a nuclear alliance,” the secretary general said. “A world where Russia, China and North Korea have nuclear weapons, but NATO does not, is not a safer world. That is why the ultimate guarantee of NATO’s security is the strategic nuclear forces of allies, particularly those of the United States.”

Stoltenberg said the world may be more dangerous and unpredictable now, but he feels conflict is not inevitable. “To preserve the peace, we need the military strength of the NATO alliance, combined with the political courage to seek dialogue, to deescalate, reduce tensions and find peaceful solutions to our differences,” he said.

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDODNews)