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Esper Sets Expectations for NATO Meetings

June 26, 2019 | BY Terri Moon Cronk
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Though his appointment represents a change in leadership for the Defense Department, Acting Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper told reporters traveling with him to Brussels this week, it does not represent a change in DOD's mission or the U.S. commitment to its allies and partners.

Reporters interview the acting defense secretary en route to Brussels.
Reporters Interview
Acting Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper speaks to reporters on a government aircraft en route to Brussels, June 25, 2019.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 190625-D-BN624-0153C

Esper is attending a NATO defense ministers meeting during his first week on the job, and he said he hopes to achieve several things while there:

  • Strengthen alliances and improve allies' readiness with equal NATO defense spending;
  • Discuss how NATO deals with China on a long-term strategic basis;
  • Look at broadening the defeat-ISIS coalition; and
  • Discuss the future of the United States and its partners in Afghanistan.

He also has numerous bilateral meetings with other nations set up at NATO, and is meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

While en route to Brussels, Esper emphasized the United States is not seeking conflict with Iran, but rather is seeking diplomatic avenues in addressing issues via the State Department.

"This is not Iran versus the United States," he said. "This is Iran versus the region, and arguably, the broader global environment. … [We] need to all work together and get on a diplomatic path and reach a new, better agreement than what we had before."

Reporters interview the acting defense secretary en route to Brussels.
Government Aircraft
Acting Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper speaks to reporters on a government aircraft en route to Brussels, June 25, 2019.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 190625-D-BN624-0148C

What's critical, Esper said, is defending the freedom of navigation in the region for the United States and other nations. "And Iran is threatening that right now with its actions — not just maritime freedom, but aerospace freedom."

The United States is not trying to put together a military coalition as much as a "coalition writ large of like-minded allies who share our concerns about freedom of navigation, who share our concerns about Iran's nuclear pursuits in the past, their missile technologies and, frankly, their malign activities in the region."

The acting secretary said he would like to see NATO allies in the Persian Gulf politically express their concerns — if not outrage — regarding Iran's activities in the region as a first step.

Acting Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper speaks with reporters on a government aircraft.
En Route
Acting Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper speaks with reporters en route to Brussels, June 25, 2019, to attend his first NATO defense ministers meeting in the role. He plans to focus on reinforcing the U.S. commitment to strengthening the NATO Alliance, ensuring more equitable burden sharing, bolstering NATO readiness and addressing regional security issues.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 190625-D-BN624-0118C

Secondly, he said, he would like to see allies "support any range of activities we may think merits participation to help, again, deter conflict and show that we're resolute."

Esper noted that if the diplomacy path should stall, it would be because Iran refuses to come to the table. "President Donald J. Trump has been very clear that he would meet without precondition, and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has said that as well," he noted. Many countries around the world have interests in the region, and many get their oil through the Strait of Hormuz, the acting secretary said.

"So this is a reason why we need to internationalize this issue and have our allies and partners work with us to get Iran to come back to the negotiating table and talk about the way ahead," he emphasized.