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NATO's Success Depends on Ability to Change As Needed

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NATO's secretary general discussed a wide range of issues facing the alliance, particularly threats from China, and what he expects the alliance to achieve going forward.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's secretary general, today spoke virtually from NATO headquarters in Brussels to the Defense One Outlook 2021, a forum for sharing thoughts and ideas.

"NATO is the most successful alliance in history because we have been able to change when the world is changing," he said.

U.S. and Italian troops operate a vehicle through water in the woods.
Joint Training
U.S. and Italian troops operate a vehicle at a dig site while training in Udine, Italy, Dec. 9, 2020.
Photo By: Paolo Bovo, Army
VIRIN: 201209-A-JM436-0310M

To keep pace with a changing world, Stoltenberg said the alliance launched the NATO 2030 project earlier this year.

"NATO 2030 is about how to make sure that NATO continues to change," he said. 

For 40 years, NATO did one thing, and that was to deter the Soviet Union, he said. When the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down, NATO changed its focus to ending the wars in the Balkans and fighting terrorism in the Middle East.

After Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and China's growing military threat, the focus changed again, he added. 

In response to these new threats, NATO increased its defense spending and modernization efforts, and those efforts will continue with a 10-year plan embodied in the NATO 2030 project.

Stoltenberg acknowledged policy and political differences in the 30-nation alliance, and he said NATO needs to be able to successfully address those differences.

"There's no way to hide the differences on a wide range of issues, but then we need to sit down, come together, consult and try to find ways forward despite our differences," he said.

Soldiers walk down a mountain trail.
Hike Down
Polish soldiers assigned to hike down a mountain during a patrol of the administrative boundary line in Kosovo, Dec. 4, 2020.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Jonathan Perdelwitz, Army National Guard
VIRIN: 201204-Z-TN401-1279C

"My message to the United States is that it's a great advantage for the United States to have 29 friends and allies, especially as the United States and the world addresses the security implications of a growing China," he added.

He said the alliance — along with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and other partners — looks with alarm as China is making its presence felt in the South China Sea, the Arctic, Africa and cyberspace through foreign investments and in building out a vulnerable 5G network that it's looking to export.

At last year's NATO summit, the alliance for the first time decided to put discussions about how to deal with threats coming China on the agenda, he said.

Russia is also a growing concern. "In the last decade or so, we've seen that Russia gradually has undermined and violated the INF Treaty," he said, referring to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. 

Despite the demise of that treaty, the alliance is working to strengthen arms control — not only with Russia, but also with China, he said.

Regarding Afghanistan, the secretary general said the alliance must weigh the risks of leaving too quickly without satisfactory negotiations with the Taliban and the Afghan government.

"It would be a great tragedy if the terrorist caliphate they lost in Iraq and Syria then reemerges in Afghanistan," he said. 

"No one wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary. But at the same time, we realize that if we leave too soon, we may pay a very high price," he warned. 

A pilot sits in an open cockpit.
Strike Eagle
An F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron stands static on the flightline at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, Dec. 2, 2020.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Madeline Herzog
VIRIN: 201202-F-ZB805-0477C

Regarding the Arctic, the secretary general said NATO is heavily involved there, with many of the important NATO military bases located there or nearby.

"NATO allies have over the last two years invested heavily in new capabilities that operate in the Arctic: maritime patrol aircrafts, new frigates, new fighter jets and so on. All those capabilities are important for NATO presence in the Arctic," he said.

NATO also hosted the recent Trident Juncture exercise in the Arctic area, he added

The alliance is also working to reduce tensions with Russia in the Arctic, he said, noting that Russia is a member of the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, along with northern NATO nations.

On a different topic, Stoltenberg said: "I very much look forward to working with Joe Biden when he becomes the president. I know him as a very strong supporter of the trans-Atlantic bond, and he knows NATO very well through his time as vice president and also as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee." 

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