Unity is the most effective arrow in NATO's quiver, alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told NBC’s Courtney Kube at the Aspen Security Forum.
Countering Russia dominated last night's discussion at the Colorado forum, but the alliance chief also talked about NATO in Afghanistan and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The secretary general said the alliance is preparing for a world with no INF Treaty and a world with more Russian missiles. Russia has until Aug. 2 to come into compliance with the treaty, which was signed between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987. Russia has deployed SSC-8 missiles that violate the terms of the treaty, and all alliance nations are prepared to respond.
"We will respond," Stoltenberg said. "It will be measured. It will be coordinated. We will not mirror what Russia is doing — meaning we will not deploy missile defense. We have increased readiness of forces, and we will also support new initiatives."
The bottom line, he said, is the alliance must deliver credible deterrence and defense from NATO, because that is the best guarantee of peace in Europe.
The abrogation of the INF Treaty is just one piece of Russian malfeasance. In addition to annexing Crimea from Ukraine, occupying provinces of Georgia and sparking conflict in the Dombass region of Ukraine, Russia has modernized its nuclear arsenal over a long period of time.
NATO has responded. For the first time in NATO history, there are combat-ready troops in the eastern part of the alliance — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. "These battalions are not very big, but they are multinational NATO troops, meaning that NATO is already there," the secretary general said. "If any of these countries are attacked, there is no doubt that it will trigger the response from the full alliance. And we also increased the readiness of our forces to reinforce if needed. In a way, NATO has already started to respond in a measured, defensive way."
The "one for all, all for one" nature of the alliance is key to deterrence, he said. "As long as that is credible — if you attack one ally, the whole alliance will respond — then we are by far the strongest alliance in the world," he said. "We are 50 percent of the world's military might. We are stronger than any other potential adversary so long as we stay together. The most important thing is the resolve, the political will, the unity of the alliance. As long as that is in place, then we are safe."
The problem is not deterring an actual attack. Russia is involved in cyberattacks, meddling in elections, the chemical agent attack in Great Britain, and more. "These hybrid attacks blur the line between peace and war," he said.
NATO is truly a North Atlantic organization, Stoltenberg said, noting that the only time the alliance's Article 5 provision was triggered — the article states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all — was in response to an attack on the United States. "I think everyone expected that Article 5 was for, you know, Soviet Union attacking a small NATO ally," he said. "That never happened, because deterrence worked."
With the 9/11 attacks, all NATO allies stood behind the United States and joined in the operations in Afghanistan. NATO went in with the United States and will come out with the United States, the secretary general said.
"Hundreds of thousands of European soldiers and Canadian soldiers have served in Afghanistan and more than a thousand have paid the ultimate price," Stoltenberg said. "We had — at the peak — we had more than 140,000 troops there in the combat operation. Roughly one third ... of those soldiers were non-U.S. soldiers. So this has been a big operation, not only for the United States, but for many NATO allies and partners. Therefore, we will decide on the future presence in Afghanistan together."
The secretary general said NATO is good for Europe, but it is also extremely good for the United States. "It is extremely good to have friends and allies," he said. "You are privileged to have 28 friends and allies who are together with you. Every time. Not only triggering Article 5 after 9/11, but if you compare with China or Russia or any other great power, they don't have [those] kinds of friends and allies as you have. That makes you stronger."
He noted that many in the United States are concerned about China. "If you're concerned about the size of China, then you should stay in NATO, because as long as you are in NATO, you are terribly big," he said. "If you add all the other allies, we are 50 percent of world [gross domestic product] and 50 percent of the world's military might."
Stoltenberg said it is easy to be concerned about the world situation, but "we should also be a bit optimistic, because despite all these attempts to weaken NATO, NATO is not weak."
Opinion polls in Europe and North America show tremendous support for the alliance, he said. "Those who are trying to undermine the public support for NATO have not succeeded," he added.