Both Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed alliance unity at the end of the defense ministerial meeting in Brussels today.
The meeting — the first in-person ministerial since the COVID-19 pandemic — emphasized the alliance is adapting to new, more complex security challenges and looked at the lessons of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
"NATO remains the central forum for consultation, decision making, and action on trans-Atlantic security and defense issues," Austin said at a news conference after the ministerial. "Our meetings this week only reinforces that NATO's strength doesn't come just from its military might; it comes from its unity and its sense of common purpose."
The secretary emphasized that the United States' commitment to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty establishing the alliance in 1949 — an attack on one nation is an attack on all — is "ironclad." He echoed President Joe Biden's words that this commitment is "a sacred obligation" to the U.S. government.
"We're committed to working with our allies to ensure that NATO is ready to face the future," he said. "Our countries face an increasingly complex security environment. And, so, this alliance is opening a new chapter in the transatlantic relationship."
Deterring Russia is a focus of NATO, and the defense ministers approved a number of initiatives to improve the readiness and availability of forces and capabilities.
But the global security environment is changing, and the wind of changes blows from the east. China — while not a focus of any one part of the NATO ministerial — is a concern to the nations of the alliance.
"Regarding China, let me just say … that alliances like NATO are one of our greatest strengths," Austin said.
The 30 nations of the alliance have concerns about China's disturbing activities in the past, and Austin mentioned the 2019 Summit where the leaders agreed to address the risks posed by China. "And at the summit in June, we elaborated on the ways that China's ambitions and behavior present challenges to the rules-based international order," Austin said.
U.S. leaders see increasing interest from allies and partners — not only in the Indo-Pacific, but around the world — to work collectively to ensure the Indo-Pacific remains free and open and that the international rules-based order remains in place, Austin said.
He also noted that the North Atlantic Council issued a statement on Chinese cyber behavior. "So, there's an increasing interest in checking that kind of behavior, but also to build resilience throughout our own infrastructures," he said.
In a news conference yesterday, Stoltenberg also addressed the problems raised by China's actions. "What we did today was to address and also make important decisions on how NATO should respond to a more competitive world where we see more state-to-state rivalry and where we actually see the whole global balance of power shifting because of the rise of China," he said. "When we address this whole new security environment with new threats and new challenges, of course, part of that picture is China."
China is modernizing its military capabilities, including advanced nuclear systems and long-range missile systems, and this concerns NATO allies as well as nations in the Indo-Pacific, Stoltenberg said.
But the alliance was established to provide collective security for the trans-Atlantic region, and the ministers discussed developing and maintaining credible deterrence and defense, Austin said. "It requires all of our fellow allies to share in that responsibility and to procure, prepare and provide capabilities and forces that are ready and have the resources that they need," Austin said.
Austin also said the alliance members will learn from the experiences in Afghanistan and "apply some lessons to NATO's current and future operations to ensure that we can most effectively use our collective strengths."
Austin harkened back to the founding of the alliance, noting that the first ministerial was at the Pentagon. "At that ministerial [meeting], my predecessor, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, said that they had gathered to strengthen the ramparts of peace," Austin said. "That's what NATO has always done. And that's what it's going to continue to do."
Throughout history, the alliance has grown and changed and adapted to new threats and challenges. "But we will always be stronger [by] tackling them together, and consulting together, and working together," Austin said. "NATO remains the strongest alliance in history because it unites countries that share powerful values. And it continues to serve as a vast force multiplier for our individual capabilities and strengths. The Euro-Atlantic area is most secure when we work together through NATO."