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News Conference by Acting Secretary Shanahan at the NATO Defense Ministerial, Brussels, Belgium

Feb. 14, 2019
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan

ACTING SECRETARY OF DEFENSE PATRICK SHANAHAN:  Okay.  All right.  Good afternoon, everyone.

I know Secretary General Stoltenberg just briefed prior to me, and I thought I'd just take a moment and recognize him.

You know, two years ago, who would have ever thought we'd be here announcing $100 billion more in spending?  I mean, it's remarkable. 

And it really speaks to the secretary general's leadership.  He catalyzes teams to work hard, and we're grateful for his leadership.  And I'm confident that we'll be writing a similar story two years from now on readiness.

And what I appreciate the most about the secretary general is he inspires us by encouraging us as to what is possible, not what is challenging.

As I conclude my first NATO defense ministerial, I'd like to highlight some of our discussions these past 30 highly productive hours.

By developing NATO's political guidance, we ensured our planning is focused on generating the right capabilities to remain focused against current and emerging threats.  We will lead, not lag.

Our dinner last night was a family dinner.  It was a good opportunity to hear allies' unique national circumstances, as we drive NATO's collective security.

We reviewed progress made on fulfilling the Wales Defense Investment Pledge.  Our responsibility moving forward must be to translate these investments into real results.

SACEUR General Scaparrotti's leadership has been particularly helpful, as we've made progress on our Four 30s readiness initiative.  This is the start, and I'm confident SACEUR's legacy will be a culture of readiness.

Here I note the value of exercises such as Trident Juncture -- NATO's largest since the Cold War -- in building our readiness.  Exercises help us identify gaps and correct gaps.  They also demonstrate to others our capability and capacity.

We need both, and we know why.  The world is changing.

Germany's Minister Von Der Leyen summarized it well:  Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, Chinese assertiveness, the terrorism of the Islamic State and authoritarian regimes developing nuclear weapons.

So NATO is engaging on threats beyond Europe's periphery, including cyber and hybrid threats, threats in space, and threats to our military and civilian telecommunications infrastructure.

In the face of these challenges, NATO remains the world's most powerful military alliance, and the embodiment of our trans-Atlantic bond.  

And we're growing.  Last week, allies signed the accessions protocol for North Macedonia.  I sat beside Minister Sekerinska during the ministerial.  NATO is truly fortunate to have her inspired leadership.

Earlier this week, I traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq.  I shared insights from my visit.

NATO continues in its critical role in developing Afghan national security forces.  NATO is coordinated and aligned.  We are together.  We are helping to ensure a diplomatic settlement, with Ambassador Khalilzad in the lead.

No outcome is predetermined, but as President Trump said in the State of the Union, after two decades of war, the hour has come to try for peace.

On Monday I had visited Baghdad.  NATO's mission in Iraq is close to fulfilling the requirements agreed upon by our political leadership.

We are training Iraqi defense forces, assisting with institution-building, and civilian-military relations.  I especially thank Minister Sajjan and Canada for leading this effort.

Visiting both Afghanistan and Iraq, I was inspired by the devotion and teamwork of our NATO troops, working alongside our Afghan and Iraq partners.  We have young people from Barcelona, Warsaw and Pittsburgh who grew up speaking different languages now serving beside each other and protecting each other in common missions.

From Bagram to Baghdad, from the Black Sea to the Baltic, the teamwork ensures collective security.  That's why, as President Trump said just last month we're going to be with NATO 100 percent.

Let me close on the INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) Treaty.  U.S. withdrawal and NATO support for our finding and determinations are a case study in alliance unity.  NATO maintained unity on a sensitive, critically important issue.  NATO stood united, recognizing that this is a simple case of U.S. compliance and Russian non-compliance.

To allies, thank you.

And let me state, unequivocally, the U.S. is committed to working with allies to meet this new reality.  The United States is committed to NATO, our Article V obligations remain ironclad, and America will continue to lead and support trans-Atlantic unity and security.

To close, I note 2019 is NATO's 70th anniversary, but NATO is about the future.  I'm confident this alliance will meet that future with unity, purpose and strength.

Thank you.

STAFF:  We now have time for a few questions.  For the first question we'll go to Bob Burns from the Associated Press.

Q:  Thank you.  Bob Burns, A.P.

Mr. Secretary, you mentioned this is your first NATO meeting.

I'd like to ask you, how do you reconcile your statements of very strong support for NATO with President Trump's more ambivalent, one might say hot-and-cold, approach?  He, in fact, has called NATO obsolete, and suggested that members are freeloaders.

I ask you this because this difference is one of the key reasons that your predecessor resigned about two months ago.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Well, what I hear from President Trump is we, collectively, all need to do more.  And his message to NATO has been we need to do more.

So I don't think there is a divergence, okay?  We have to do this together.

I think the difficulty that we face is there isn't alignment with the public on the threat, okay.  And that's where, especially, this has been insightful coming from spending time with our allies and partners and talking about the challenge of meeting the pledges.  

The public is not aware of the evolving threat.  I'm -- I'm referring to Russia.  I'm referring to China.  I'm referring to the evolving situation we see with our infrastructure, cyber-security, space.

And it was really as part of the discussion we had last night, how do we collectively start to communicate?  Because we are competing.  And I mean, this was -- this was the family meeting.  You know, it's how do you compete with all the other social obligations?

And I think where, anchoring back to President Trump, he recognizes the need to address these threats.  He recognizes that we need to do more.

Now, what I saw in my time here -- and this is why what General Secretary -- Secretary General Stoltenberg has done is so important -- the $100 billion is a leading indicator for capability and capacity.  That's what we're going to see.

What I saw in the last 30 hours was not a body that produces policy.  What I saw was a group that is putting together updated plans that confront reality in a changing world.  What I witnessed was coordination to make hard commitments on readiness.  The debates that we're going to have on readiness will be the same.  It's hard.  But what I also understand is that the collective body understands the need to address this.

The -- maybe the other important part, and it doesn't always translate, there was real unity in our family meeting.  There was real unity that we will do this together.

Afghanistan was probably the situation that brought that forward the most.  We talked about how do we do better going forward, how do we stick together going forward.  And I think Secretary General Stoltenberg shared the same opinion.

STAFF:  Missy Ryan, Washington Post?

Q:  Hi, Mr. Secretary.  Thanks for being here.

Both you and Secretary General Stoltenberg talked about shared support for the peace process in Afghanistan, and certainly everyone hopes that there will be a political settlement coming.

But at the same time there's been a lot of confusion in recent weeks about whether or not the United States will do a major troop reduction in a unilateral fashion regardless of what the peace talk situation is.  And President Trump, you quoted from his reference in the State of the Union to Afghanistan, but he also alluded in the State of the Union to upcoming troop reductions from Afghanistan.

In your conversations over the last 24 hours, did you hear any concerns from the NATO partners about the possibility of an abrupt American withdrawal or troop reduction in Afghanistan?  And are there any indications that NATO countries may be considering changes to their own troop contributions based on their expectations about that?


MR. SHANAHAN:  Thanks, Missy.

The -- maybe just to pull apart some of your question.

There will be no unilateral troop reduction.  I mean, that was one of the messages of the meeting today.  We'll be coordinated.  We're together.

President Trump said this is an opportunity for peace.  Let's not let this opportunity be stolen away from us.  And so what we talked about was how do we double down in our support for Afghan national defense and security forces to put even more pressure on the Taliban?  We talked about no division, alliance and unity, and that's how we walked out of the room.

We also talked about, in a post-reconciliation environment, how would we make coordinated decisions; how would we do the planning in a post-reconciliation environment?  The value of these meetings is that everyone can go back and explain to their senior leadership where does the United States stand.

We also talked about how we would maintain coordination and communication.  The world changes every day.  We have phones, e-mails -- I mean, it's wonderful.  So I really feel like we came out of here much stronger and coordinated.  That doesn't mean things won't change tomorrow.

I feel really good about our alignment.  I feel as though we're creating the diplomatic leverage Ambassador Khalilzad needs.  And we really need to talk about the possibility for peace.  This may be our moment.

STAFF:  We have time for one or maybe two more questions.  And we'll go to Ansgar Haase from DPA.  This gentleman right here.

Q:  Ansgar Haase from DPA.

Secretary Shanahan, Germany presented only last week its latest national plan on defense spending.  And without giving concrete figures, from a U.S. perspective, is it a credible plan and does it satisfy the American expectations?  Thank you.

MR. SHANAHAN:  And when you talk about the plan, are you talking about spending levels, or?

Q:  The national plan on defense spending to reach the two percent target.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Right.  So is this -- this is more a question of reaching the two percent?

Q:  Exactly.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Yes, so maybe a couple thoughts here.

In our family meeting last night, just to put things into -- into context, of the $100 billion that's been incrementally contributed, $30 billion comes from Germany.  Okay?  That is a significant lift.  It is extremely important.

And you know, when we look across the category of burden sharing, it's, you know, more than cash; it's contributions to ongoing NATO operations.  The German participation in Afghanistan is significant.

But to answer your question on is 1.5 percent enough, it's not.  Okay?  It has to be more.  And that doesn't mean the effort and the ongoing work hasn't come at significant sacrifice.  The threat warrants more.  That's where there's divergence.  And this is why the public messaging is so important.

In my previous experience, I wasn't aware to the same degree of the emerging threats; I am now.  With what I know now, I would spend more.  That's the challenge we have with reaching out and communicating and sharing strategic messages.

STAFF:  We have time for one final question and we'll go to this gentleman right here, Al Arabiya.

Q:  (Inaudible).

Mr. Secretary, for almost one year we have been told even here in this press room and in Europe that Daesh was degraded, defeated.  And then when Mr. Trump announced that he's withdrawing United States forces, many politician in the region and in Europe are seeing that Daesh is still relevant and has many forces and is not defeated.

Can I ask you, what is the point?  What is the reality of Daesh capabilities in the region?

And subsequent to that, when the United States withdraw its forces from Syria, they go to Iraq maybe to contain the Iran influence in --

MR. SHANAHAN:  This is like six or seven questions, right?


Yeah.  Yeah.  This is the high-concentration question, right?

Q:  Yeah.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Yeah.  Okay.

Q:  Daesh capability -- does Daesh still have capabilities on the ground in Syria and Iraq?  And are you going to contain Iran in Iraq?

Thank you.

MR. SHANAHAN:  You know if we said, "Do they have capability?" you have to say, "Do they have small capability or large capability?"  What do -- what do you think?

Q:  (Off mic)

MR. SHANAHAN:  It's not a question of capability.  It's a question of risk, okay?  Do they present risk of terrorism?  Organized, scale risks to the United States, to Europe?  Or are they a risk to the region?  Or are they a risk to the local community?  I think that's the real characterization that has to occur.

And when we talk about what's occurred in Syria recently, it's been the decimation of the caliphate.  And we talk about that in a military context.  So, ISIS, Daesh, they no longer hold geography.  They no longer govern in the spaces they once held.  Their finances have been annihilated.  Their ability to communicate on social media has been destroyed.

You know, in that regards, they've been defeated.

Does that mean they've been eliminated?  Are there remnants that are scattered or that're hiding in those communities?  Well, they are.  But that's the nature of the next phase:  How do we maintain security?  How do we keep them suppressed?

The military mission is complete or nearly complete.  It's the next phase that's very critical.  And part of my discussions here have been, how do we support those next phases?

STAFF:  Ladies and gentlemen, that is all the time that we have for today.  Thank you very much.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Thank you very much.